The internet has a long and storied history of angry rants concerning issues that 97 percent of people don’t know or care about. Today, I’m happy to do my part to keep that tradition alive, as we try to answer the question of why it’s so hard to find TV coverage of the best, deepest, most exciting football league in the world. If that topic doesn’t interest you – no hard feelings, come back later this week and we’ll hopefully have something more light-hearted. But if you’re worried about why Bundesliga football is available on fewer and fewer channels every year, despite the talent and achievements of the league constantly growing, read on.
Perhaps a bit of history is in order first. In addition to their deals with local and national TV providers, most of the major European leagues have deals with North American cable and/or satellite carriers to broadcast matches here. Even as the fifth or sixth most popular sport in the USA, football has been generating enough American viewers over the past decade to make it a profitable programming choice. But in order for an American viewer to be able to watch a particular match, three separate entities have to be in synch: the league in question (and the FA that sanctions it), the network/media company owning the rights to record and broadcast the match, and the cable or satellite provider that delivers programming packages to the paying viewer. These contracts roll downhill, so that a particular European football league won’t make an explicit deal with (say) DirecTV – instead, a league will make a deal with a network, and the network tries to get their programming carried on as many of the big cable and satellite providers as possible.
The classic pairing of league and network was the Barclay’s Premier League and the Fox Soccer Channel. Seemed like a natural: a league that was always going to be popular in the USA (even if only because of the common language) with a network that has a powerful corporate parent and is available through all the major cable and satellite providers. FSC carried the Prem from 2005 (when the channel was formed from the remnants of the old Fox Sports World channel) until this past May, when the new NBC Sports Network outbid them for rights to the Premier League. More on that in a bit – for now, just understand that, for most of the past 6 to 8 years, Fox Soccer was the loudest name and the biggest player as far as bringing football from across the pond to the North American audience. They had the Prem, they had the Champions League, and everyone else had to try to get in wherever they could. This left all the other big leagues and all the other big names in sports media/broadcasting trying to make arrangements that could, if not beat the popularity of the Prem and Fox Soccer, at least try to do some decent numbers and generate some interest that could turn a profit.
So from this void came the arrangement between Gol! TV and the Bundesliga. This was always a strange marriage because Gol! TV, as the name implies, was designed to be a Spanish-language network – or, at least, a bi-lingual network geared towards Spanish-and English-speakers. Most of Gol’s other programming was, and still is, from Latin American leagues (some of which are pretty popular in their own right), plus they used to have a handful of La Liga matches. The combination of English-language announcers covering German football on a Spanish-oriented channel was always a little weird. Also, the production values at Gol weren’t the best – just to take one example, it took them years to roll out their HD channel (in some places, it never became available), and their standard definition broadcasts were somehow even crappier than most other standard-def channels. But Bundesliga fans accepted it, because at least our matches were available: it was a channel that you could get through most cable providers and from DirecTV, the biggest and most popular satellite provider, and you knew that they would carry at least 2 live Bundesliga matches a week. Add in the fact that they would often replay matches throughout the week, they had a Bundesliga-recap show, Hallo Bundesliga, and the channel was generally carried by soccer-serious bars and restaurants, and you had a situation that was at least tolerable for fans of German football.
This all started to change over the last 18 months, as the media landscape became more crowded. I could write about this all day, but the brief summary is as follows: al-Jazeera, the Qatari news network, and NBC-Universal, one of the biggest American media companies, both initiated new sports-specific channels: beIN Sport and NBC Sports Network. These two new entrants totally distorted the market, because their big-money corporate parents can pay huge sums to outbid other companies for rights to broadcast matches. beIN sport, in particular, turned the market on its head by paying Comcast to carry the channel on its cable packages – a huge investment, considering most TV networks are paid by the cable and satellite companies. NBC Sports bought the rights to the Barclay’s Premier League, beIN bought the rights to Spain’s La Liga and France’s Ligue 1, and both encouraged the big cable and satellite companies (Comcast and DirecTV) to carry their channels instead of Gol! TV. Understand, this isn’t just a question of the costs of the rights to broadcast football matches going up – these are networks with corporate owners that are far bigger than anything specific to the world of soccer. NBC Universal is now owned by Comcast, which, in addition to having a market cap of over $ 110 billion, owns its own cable distribution company (meaning it’s in no hurry to carry Gol! TV, which is basically in direct competition with its own new NBC Sports Network). And al Jazeera, though technically no longer owned by the Qatari government, still receives most of its funding from Qatar and has access to practically unlimited sums of money in the short term.
The result of the recent shuffling is that Gol! TV has been dropped from most providers: it’s no longer available on Comcast, and it’s available only in the Spanish-language version through add-on packages on DirecTV and Verizon Fios – and with those, there’s no Gol! TV HD. It’s still available for now on Time Warner Cable and Cox Cable, but it could be on its way out on those providers as well. So the upshot is this: if you live in North American and you’re a supporter of Spanish or French football, you’re pretty happy right now: you will get several matches a week, in full HD, and the channel that carries them is large and growing. If you’re a supporter of English football, you’re probably in a cautious holding pattern: the switch from Fox Soccer to NBC Sports is mostly a lateral move. Although there are probably some complaints as far as expertise and individual decisions made during the broadcasts, the strength of ownership certainly leaves you confident, and they seem to be recording every match in HD.
But if you’re a fan of German football – or if you’re a fan of exciting leagues full of talented young players in general – these are dark days. Gol! TV is available on a small (and shrinking) number of cable and satellite outlets, the few places that DO let you see the Bundesliga are usually not in hi-def and not very well-produced, and you may have even been left paying for a cable or DirecTV package that you no longer need. Now, part of this could be seen as Gol! TV’s fault – their weird selection of games to feature, their failure to hop on the HD train, and really maybe even their decision to get Bundesliga matches in the first places are all very questionable. But considering the way beIN and NBC Sports were determined to cram into the market, it’s hard to see how one or two individual decisions would have made any difference. But however you slice it, the best league in the world – the league that features the defending Champions League title-holders and the defending Champions League runners-up, the league that has the best combination of star power and competitive balance, the league that seems to have more thrilling finishes and more packed arenas every weekend – is virtually locked out of the North American market.
Going forward, there are 3 possible ways I could see this being rectified:
(1) Comcast can reconsider and put Gol! TV back on, and DirecTV and Verizon can put it back on in their basic packages
This would be the easiest and most direct way to solve the problem – all the providers who cut Gol or reduced its presence just reverse their decision. Unfortunately, this is also the least likely to happen: Comcast, as already mentioned, owns (indirectly) the NBC Sports Channel, and aj-Jazeera has done a good job of turning both Comcast and DirecTV against the idea of carrying Gol. There were a few Comcast subscribers online who were talking about filing a complaint and/or demanding a change, so maybe it could work. But honestly, even with the excitement and the high level of play in German football, I don’t see millions of people rising up in a groundswell of anger to demand the return of a low-budget, standard-def Spanish language channel that broadcasts German sports in the USA. That’s just me being honest.
Anyway, if you want to get involved at this level, there is a Facebook page demanding the return of Gol, etc. But I don’t think this is the best angle – read on to see why.
(2) New cable, satellite or other media providers that do carry Gol! can come in and challenge Comcast and DirecTV
This is a more intriguing option: OK, Comcast doesn’t want to carry Gol! TV on my cable package? Fine, maybe I don’t want Comcast. I’m already sort of availing myself of this option, because I get Verizon FIOS, which is still giving me a form of Gol! TV (though, again, on a Spanish-only channel, and only with an expensive package). And there are other satellite providers, including Dish Network, that could possibly be talked into reaching a deal with Gol! TV, especially because Gol would probably be willing to give them a favorable deal at this point. In fact, Dish Network might already offer Gol! on one of their most upgraded packages – if anyone can confirm this, let me know in the comment section.
But this is, at best, a stop-gap solution: FIOS offers only the stripped-down version of Gol, and FIOS isn’t even available in all markets (it relies on underground fiber-optic cable, and is slow to get to areas outside of big cities). And even if this worked, it would probably a matter of time before NBC Sports and beIN came in to try to push Gol! TV aside anyway. So if you can get FIOS or a different carrier that has Gol on a special Spanish-language/international package, maybe you’d want to consider it, but it might be worth waiting for …
(3) Bundesliga football can move away from Gol! TV
This is probably the most likely end result: the DFL refuses to renew its contract with Gol! TV after it expires, and instead reaches a deal with a bigger, better, deeper-pocketed sports-media company to bring Bundesliga matches to North America. It could either be through beIN (in the classic “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” tactic), or through a different broadcasting company.
Perhaps EuroSport, which already brings most Bayern matches to European audiences, could start a North American subsidiary and try to get it onto cable and satellite packages. Perhaps ESPN could get back into the mix, and run games both on carriers that have the ESPN family and online at ESPN 3 (like they were doing last year). Perhaps – just thinking out loud here – Fox, after losing the Prem, might consider jumping in to German football. They’ll be looking for some big-time programming for their new “FoxSports1” channel, which will replace FSC and will still carry Champions League and Europa League competitions. FS1 and its parent corporation are far too big to be pushed away by al-Jazeera and NBC, so it might be a good match.
The big problem here is that Gol! TV and the DFL have an agreement through the summer of 2015. This means that, for the next 2 seasons, we’re probably stuck with what we have, unless the DFL tries to get out of its contract with Gol (which would be incredibly expensive). The Gol-and-Bundesliga extension was signed 2 years ago, meaning either (a) the DFL didn’t really understand the extent to which Gol would end up being relegated to the sidelines, or (2) the brains behind German football just don’t really consider North America to be a market worth prioritizing. Which is understandable, because the league has grown so fast and achieved so much with limited support from North America, but I do wish the DFL could act with a bit more urgency when it comes to loyal fans trying to do anything they can to watch games, and just not being able to find them anywhere. Yeah, there are places that still have Gol! (in low-definition), and there are internet streams. And yeah, you can order the matches online through your BayernTV account. But come on – even a medium-sized modern HD television is much, much better than watching your team on a damn computer. If even France and their Ligue Fucking UUUUNNNN can get their product to fans all over the USA – in hi-def and full surround sound, for several live matches a week – how could a league that’s 10 times better in every way fail to do the same?
Last thing, and I’ll let you go: this is one of the times I’m very glad I no longer work for a (supposedly) major media company. There would be no way I could get away with saying all this at the old site, because it might piss off the corporate partners, or because it might piss off the business rivals of the corporate partners and get me accused of favoritism or collusion, or for a variety of other reasons that basically come down to “you better be polite!” But now I don’t work for anyone, I don’t answer to anyone, and I don’t have to polite about anything. And I can afford to say FUCK Comcast, and FUCK beIN Sport, and FUCK all the media jackals who try to grind every nickel they can from their audience. It’s idiotic that a football league with the level of talent and excitement that we’re seeing in Germany is practically locked out of most of the American market, just when people were starting to pay attention. The whole thing is so short-sighted and petty. Anyway, sorry for the language, but I’m rather fed up with the situation.
We’ll be back with more later this week – Schalke 04 and Panthessalonikios have a big first-leg match in the Champions League final qualifying round, so check in if you’re interested in that. And, as always, if I made any errors or you have further information to add, email me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading.