ESPN, the Disney-owned US sports broadcasting giant, and the Bundesliga have long-term plans to continue to market the top German soccer league in the territory, which will likely result in an extension of their media rights agreement beyond the 2025-26 season.
Having signed a six-year deal back in 2019, the contract came into effect at the start of the 2020-21 season amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected collaboration efforts between the two parties to promote the Bundesliga product to US audiences.
The broadcaster has been building a following for the competition, but having got off to a delayed start, and with interest in soccer in North America ramping up as the US, Canada, and Mexico prepare to co-host the FIFA World Cup in 2026, there is an expectation that the partnership will extend beyond six seasons.
Speaking at a media roundtable ahead of Saturday’s ‘Der Klassiker’ clash between Bundesliga sides Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, Tim Bunnell, ESPN’s senior vice-president of programming, said: “We are in this for the long term. We haven't engaged in renewal talks but I expect to. There's a lot to look forward to in our future.
“We have two years to go and have a lot of development to do still. We got a late start with Covid, and we had to pause out of the gate. Contracts begin and end but we're looking at this as a much longer-term relationship and we're just getting started.”
Peer Naubert, chief marketing officer of Bundesliga International, added: “We’re 100% agreed and we would like to ask the clubs to do even more in the US and be more active and come more often so that we can build upon this and grow together in the US as much as we can.”
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ESPN replaced US national network Fox as the Bundesliga's rightsholder in that market, with the German top tier agreeing to a deal in which coverage has been focused on the ESPN+ streaming service.
The broadcaster shows more than 300 games per season live and on-demand across its platforms in both English and Spanish.
Having opened an office in New York in 2018, the Bundesliga opted to carve out its US media rights to maximize the value in what it regards as an important market.
ESPN has since been able to offer the scale and technological innovation the Bundesliga was seeking, particularly since the launch of ESPN+ in April 2018.
The major sports network has also benefited from a close collaboration with the league.
Bunnell explained: “When we look at the Bundesliga relationship, the quality and innovation on the production side is one of the high watermarks. It's a big selling point for us.
“We deal with a lot of European soccer leagues, and we've always felt from our side that we get tremendous support from the Bundesliga. Almost more than we do from any other league. So, the relationship starts in a very positive tone.
“Our coverage is in English and Spanish, which may sound like a small thing, but a lot of soccer rights are sold in the US divided along those lines which for us is not ideal.
“We would rather own the whole thing and make sure that we're serving the Hispanic community – as 28% of Bundesliga fans are Hispanics. To be able to have the entire offering within our portfolio is a critical piece from a programming standpoint.”
ESPN's digital transformation
ESPN is presently undergoing a period of transition, with a key component being a shift from linear television to direct-to-consumer (DTC).
The sports network is also set to become a standalone business this month as part of a planned restructuring.
Disney is additionally eyeing up potential outside investment into the iconic US sports brand, with chief executive Bob Iger stressing a desire for the company to keep hold of ESPN – it currently owns 80% – and create a streaming service based around it, which it would aim to accomplish through a partial sale of around 30% of the product.
As one of the first major sports properties to embrace ESPN’s live-streaming offering, the Bundesliga is viewed as a key component of the broadcaster’s enhanced digital approach.
Bunnell said: “Our business at ESPN is undergoing a significant transformation and the most important thing for us is how we navigate from what was a pay-TV linear television model to this DTC world, and the Bundesliga is at the center of that transition for us.
“It's the most important initiative we have at the company and it's contingent upon content that's going to drive consumer subscription. When we started working with the Bundesliga a few years ago, we were at 3 million subscribers.
“The Bundesliga was one of the first of our programming partners to buy into this direct-to-consumer and digital-first vision. We're now at 26 million subscribers, so it's grown quite a bit in a couple of years. There isn’t a more important thing that we're doing in our universe than direct-to-consumer.”
The deal with the Bundesliga entails a minimum of four games per season shown on ESPN’s linear television networks to broaden the exposure of the league.
But ESPN has no plans to shift away from its streaming model for the German top-flight.
Bunnell said: “We often get asked, ‘if we're growing the Bundesliga, why aren't all the matches on ABC? Or why aren’t more of them on ESPN?’ We do a certain number of linear matches a year, but the goal really is to make the consumer understand that ESPN+ is the home for the Bundesliga.
“There are several properties that have worked well for us. UFC is a big one, PGA Tour golf, and in the football space it's the Bundesliga. Those are the properties that really help drive our direct-to-consumer base.”
Several of the Bundesliga’s international broadcast partners utilize the league’s ‘Goal Arena’ offering – a dedicated show that switches between games to show all the goals and major incidences from concurrent games on a Saturday afternoon.
Around 17 global broadcast partners, including the likes of ESPN, Viaplay, and Sony Sports India, have incorporated it into their Bundesliga coverage, with the league seeing “very positive feedback.”
It has become a key component of ESPN’s live offering.
Bunnell stated: “In our country, there's certainly familiarity with Bundesliga clubs, but a lot of the attention is drawn on Bayern and Dortmund and so the Goal Arena product gives exposure to the next tier of clubs that fans may not be as familiar with which is important.
“We're really focused on growing our younger audience and that's where the Bundesliga really helps us.”