The American soccer world was given quite the jolt when it was revealed that FIFA was extending their North American television deals for an extra four years through 2026. The announcement coming from seemingly out of nowhere didn’t just catch fans and pundits off guard though, it caught FIFA’s former television partner off guard as well.
In what could best be described as a terse statement dripping with righteous indignation, ESPN released the following statement regarding FIFA’s decision to giftwrap Fox Sports rights to the 2026 World Cup without opening it up for a bid:
“We were not invited to be involved in this process. Considering the high quality presentation that ESPN demonstrated and the exposure we brought to FIFA events through all our platforms, it was surprising and disappointing to learn of this when the press release was issued.”
If ESPN admits surprise and disappointment publicly, you can bet that the actual feelings regarding the deal are 100x worse.
Fox won rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to snatch the rights for the world’s biggest tournament away from Bristol. But the decision to give them 2026 rights definitely raised some eyebrows. Some have even called it the surest sign yet that the 2022 Winter World Cup will go ahead in Qatar. FIFA giving their current television partners an extra World Cup cycle can definitely be seen as a make-good for the Qatari bait and switch that will have a negative impact on Fox’s coverage plans given the increased competition for ratings and timeslots.
But again, by doing so, FIFA will be taking an enormous hit on what they could potentially earn for those 2026 rights on the open market. It’s just another example of the folly of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” Qatari World Cup.
But beyond that, the fact that ESPN had to find out the news from reading a press release is pretty alarming as well and a shoddy way to do business. ESPN did more for the World Cup in this country over the last decade than anyone had done in the previous 70 years prior. And nobody at FIFA could even give John Skipper a phone call? Yikes. That has all the courteousness of an Eric Cantona kung fu kick.