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Bundesliga embraces OTT in six-year US rights deal with ESPN

Matches from German football’s Bundesliga will be chiefly showcased stateside on ESPN+, Disney’s direct-to-consumer sports streaming service, in a long-term rights deal that starts next season.

ESPN will take over from Fox Sports as the US rights-holder after Bundesliga International, the league’s international rights sales arm, finalised a new agreement that will run for six seasons, it is understood.

Under the terms of the deal, ESPN+ will show all 306 Bundesliga games, plus the DFL Supercup, relegation play-off games and the 2. Bundesliga. The deal marks the first time that all of the German top flight’s fixtures are broadcast in the US market.

In selling the rights to ESPN until 2026, when USA will co-host the World Cup, the Bundesliga has fully embraced the OTT sector. The broadcaster currently plans to show just four games per season on its linear channels.

ESPN has invested heavily to secure the rights, and SportBusiness understands from market sources that the Disney-owned broadcaster will be paying around four times the fee paid by Fox Networks Group (per year) in USA. Fox holds the rights as part of its 80-territory deal (from 2015-16 to 2019-20) covering the Americas and parts of Asia and Europe.

Along with the live and on-demand coverage, highlights will also be shown on ESPN programmes and via the ESPN app and ESPN.com.

Arne Rees, Bundesliga International’s executive vice-president strategy, Americas, told SportBusiness: “The way we look at OTT channels and specifically in the case of ESPN+, two or three years from now it will be a very widely distributed channel.

“Looking at this platform and how many eyeballs will be on it in the pretty near future, it’s not burgeoning, but [instead] it’s starting a very very fast growth curve and we’re not at all worried about exposure. This is platform that creates a certain kind of exposure which really suits our brand and our model.”

Bundesliga International, which opened its Americas office in New York a year ago, began talks with US broadcasters at the start of the year and did not issue an invitation to tender for the rights.

Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice-president, programming and acquisitions, told SportBusiness that there would be a lot of marketing around the games to be shown on the broadcaster’s network channels and that the ESPN+ Bundesliga coverage would be promoted significantly during the broadcaster’s other football output.

Expanding on the programming plans, he said: “[In addition to live and on-demand] we will also cover Bundesliga much more aggressively with highlights on social platforms and we can amplify some of the great content that Bundesliga produces.”

“We plan on featuring a match each week in a couple of different ways. One will be from a production perspective, [by] augmenting production to tailor it a bit to a US audience. There are several US-born players who compete in the league and that’s important to drive interest.”

Match coverage will be promoted within the main ESPN site and app, which delivered a combined total of 89 million unique visitors in August. Non-live content produced by the Bundesliga will also be showcase by ESPN.

ESPN+ launched in April last year, is priced at just $4.99 per month and had 2.4 million subscribers as of June this year. The OTT channel’s audience will receive a boost later this year when Disney’s entertainment bundle hits the market. The offering is priced at $12.99 per month and, along with ESPN+, also includes the new Disney+ service and Hulu.

The Bundesliga moved to Fox in 2015 after previously suffering from a lack of market penetration through its agreement with GolTV, the soccer specific channel.

Rees, who himself spent seven years at ESPN between 2006 and 2013, remarked: “It definitely feels like the next step up for us. ESPN is by far the largest player in the US and with a huge platform to promote us.”

Commenting on the new deal, Bundesliga International chief executive Robert Klein said: “It was clear from the start that ESPN and ESPN+ shared our ambitious vision. As innovators in the sports industry, we’re both driven to deliver highly engaging content for fans. They will help us build on the strong connections the Bundesliga has with the US having welcomed more American players than any other European league.”

US players in the German top flight include Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Duesseldorf), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen) and John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg).

ESPN has displayed a renewed appetite for European football rights since the launch of ESPN+ and already shows England’s FA Cup, Italy’s Serie A, the Netherlands’ Eredivisie and the Uefa Nations League.

Team Marketing is poised to issue the US sales process for Uefa Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League rights from 2021-22 to 2023-24, and ESPN is expected to be in the mix.

Asked about the broadcaster’s level of interest, Guglielmino said: “We continue to build out the portfolio of sport that we have across ESPN and certainly Champions League and Europa League are world class properties and represent a unique opportunity. They would certainly make great compliments to the Bundesliga and Serie A that we already have.”