Univision affirms distinct Champions League strategy in coexistence with CBS
By Simon Ward
US media rights holders will mutually benefit from their enhanced coverage of the Uefa Champions League, according to Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster that offers the most live television matches from European soccer’s top clubs competition.
The 2020-21 group stage kicks of today and Univision is looking to build on the encouraging audiences at the back end of last season, with an increased mainstream TV output.
Across the whole campaign, it will be showing more than 75 of the 125 matches, equivalent to at least 60 per cent of the total, live on linear channels Univision, UniMás, TUDN and Galavisión, with all others available on digital platforms such as streaming service TUDNxtra.
This week's main games include Barcelona versus Ferencvaros today and Real Madrid versus Shakhtar Donetsk and defending champions Bayern Munich versus Atlético Madrid on Wednesday.
However, there is now also a high-profile English-language offering, with national network CBS having replaced Turner as the home of the Uefa club competitions in a deal that came into effect at the end of last season.
Viacom-owned CBS will be showing all matches on streaming service CBS Access, and a selection of marquee games on its main channel and dedicated sports channel CBS Sports Network.
Eric Conrad, executive vice-president, sports programming and acquisitions at Univision, believes the two broadcasters will share the gains as the Champions League, and its little brother the Europa League, continue to rise in popularity stateside.
In an interview with Sportcal, he said: “We want soccer interest to grow in the US. Of all the soccer consumed in the US, 55 per cent of it, regardless of language, is with Univision, and that number is closer to 80 per cent in primetime.
“So the more that soccer interest grows in the country, the more we think we will benefit. We knew going in, first with Turner and now CBS, that the [Uefa club competition] rights were going to be bifurcated by language.
"They have a different strategy with how they distribute the Champions League and Europa League products. They’re happy with their strategy and we're happy with ours so we can easily coexist in the market.”
There will be the opportunity for both Univision and CBS to build momentum given that they also hold rights in the next cycle, from 2021 to 2024, in deals worth around $150 million per year.
CBS acquired the English-language rights to the competitions for the condensed final stages of the 2019-20 season, which was heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic (with later knockout matches played over one leg), and is expanding its coverage for the new campaign.
The initial US deals for the 2018 to 2021 cycle were understood to be worth $100 million per year, of which Turner was contributing $60 million.
Univision finished last season on a high with the 2.05 million viewers on TUDN for the Champions League final between Bayern Munich of Germany and France’s Paris Saint-Germain being the best US figure for the showpiece match in five years.
The network had earlier pulled in record audiences for a last-16 tie with 967,000 for Barcelona-Napoli, for a quarter final with 1.36 million for Bayern-Barcelona and for a semi-final with 963,000 for Bayern-Lyon.
Conrad said: “We’re going into our third season. Fortunately, we found success right from the start. In the first year, we set viewership records, and reached over 22 million viewers.
“It [the audience] did grow going into both the group stage and knockout round of last season, and then post the resumption of play was phenomenal. Credit to Uefa for coming up with a plan for the matches that they were able to realise, as opposed to having to cancel due to the pandemic.
“The one game [knockout format] did lead to additional excitement given that if you lost you were going home, and fortunately more and more viewers found us so we expanded beyond what was already our significant loyal audience, and were able to attain new audiences coming to consume the games on a regular basis.”
The Champions League and Europa League form part of a Univision soccer offering that features live coverage of North America’s Major League Soccer and Mexico’s Liga MX across free-to-air channels Univision and UniMás and dedicated sports channel TUDN.
On the approach to the Champions League, Conrad said: “We always viewed it as the preeminent club soccer competition in the world. Historically in the US though it has not been available to as broad an audience as it is now.
“We viewed it as a tremendous opportunity to take the most prestigious tournament and combine it with the reach across all our platforms and assets, and our other properties like Liga MX, which is the most-watched soccer league in the US, and promote it to even greater levels.
“Now that we have the matches on over-the-air television, on a 24-hour sports network, on a broadly distributed cable network and across our digital assets, the prestige of the tournament is reflected in the distribution and reach.”
Given Univision’s predominantly Hispanic audience, the most popular European matches have tended to be those involving Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, but there is a sense that interest in the Champions League as a product is climbing, with Conrad saying: “I think it speaks to how the affinity for the tournament has grown that we were able to set a high, at least over the last five seasons, for a final that didn’t feature a club from LaLiga.”
New season plans For the 2020-21 season, Univision's live coverage will again be complemented by pre-game show ‘‘Fútbol Central’ and post-match round-up programme ‘Misión Europa’, as well as ‘Zona Fútbol’, which is available to subscribers of participating TV providers and provides concurrent action from simultaneous Champions League games, similar to American football’s NFL RedZone.
CBS is following suit, with its own pre- and post-game shows, and whip-around programme ‘The Golazo Show’, which is available on both CBS Sports Network and CBS All Access.
However, Conrad sees the English-language network as complementing rather than competing with its offering, saying: “I have to commend CBS from what I’ve seen with the final matches of last season, I thought their coverage was great. But I think in terms of the distribution not much really changes.
“Turner were putting most of their matches on a streaming product, much like CBS will be doing with CBS All Access and again that’s a very distinct strategy from ours. We’re putting the vast majority of matches on linear networks, but you can still consume all the matches across our digital assets.”
The whip-around show, already a familiar feature in Europe, debuted on Univision last season and appears to be gaining traction.
Conrad said: “The way we measure success for that product, because it’s not on a network measured for ratings, is the feedback from our distribution partners, the Comcasts, DirecTVs, Dish Networks of the world, and the fact that more and more of our distributors have picked up the channel.
“When we first launched it, we did so with two distributors, and now it’s basically with all our different partners.”
Univision is also stepping up its commitment to the Europa League, with 71 live games on linear TV channels, and all matches on TUDNxtra, this season, with a particular focus on prominent clubs from England, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Across both European club competitions, the mainstream live games will be those involving the top clubs and those teams with US and Mexican players such as Chelsea (Christian Pulisic, pictured right), Juventus (Weston McKennie), Borussia Dortmund (Gio Reyna) and Napoli (Hirving Lozano).
In addition, there will be special weekend shows to go out on main free-to-air channel Univision recapping all the major action from the Champions League and Europa League.
Conrad acknowledges that the following for the European competitions is restricted by the fact that the vast majority of games take place during the day on weekdays in USA, and would be appreciative of more flexible scheduling if that were possible.
He said: “To us, it’s amazing that on Univision, for example, we can average 630,000 viewers at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Imagine if those games were in primetime. Of course, that’s a hypothetical. Going into this we knew that gap existed in terms of matches being played in primetime in Europe and the afternoon our end.
“We’re excited, and it’s been a few years now, that the final is played on a Saturday, and we’d welcome more matches being played on weekends if there was a way to develop that type of model. It’s very complicated, with the soccer calendar complex as it is.
“Just because of the timezone, it would be great to have a few matches on the weekends like we did for the restart in August, when there were two Saturdays with matches, and we saw an uptick there.”
Scheduling Uefa club competitions at weekends is difficult as they are traditionally the preserve of European domestic leagues, and Univision is prepared to look at opportunities there.
Conrad said: “Historically we have aired other European leagues. We were a partner of the [German] Bundesliga for three years [until 2020], and we have aired [France’s] Ligue 1. We’re always looking to grow our portfolio, and as our platforms grow, we realise we need to acquire more rights, so we’ll always be interested in being aggressive with properties that resonate with our audience.”
In addition to the Champions League, Europa League, MLS and home matches of 14 teams in Liga MX, Univision has rights to USA and Mexico men's and women's national team games, Concacaf national team and club competitions and Uefa national team competitions including Euro 2020 (now in 2021) and the Nations League.