Plenty of people inside the sports media world were more than a little irritated when FIFA gave the American television rights to the 2026 World Cup (and all events up through 2026) to Fox Sports without opening up the bidding to ESPN, NBC, or other potential bidders. Many felt that it was a make good for the inevitable shift of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to November and December, when it will compete with football and a loaded sports calendar.
FIFA has finally opened up about why Fox was given the rights and why other outlets didn’t get a change to bid on them. According to the New York Times, FIFA was afraid of a lawsuit from Fox that could have resulted in Sepp Blatter getting knocked out of power.
Earlier this week, FIFA dropped its drawers a bit to provide a glimpse at its motivation. Jerome Valcke, the organization’s secretary general, said the deal with Fox was made to avoid facing a lawsuit from the media giant over shifting the 2022 Cup from the heat of the Qatari summer to the late fall and winter. The admission was surprising, but it made sense.
The summer is a less competitive time for viewers and advertisers than the late fall and winter, so Fox was unhappy at the prospect of FIFA moving the World Cup from its traditional June-July time frame — a decision that is now a fait accompli. Fox might have been fighting a losing legal battle because FIFA contracts do not disclose the time of year that a World Cup is to be played, just the year, according to executives who have seen them. But a potential court fight raised the delicious possibility of deposing Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, and other executives, on American turf.
The Times also reports that Fox isn’t just being “given” the World Cup – they’re paying roughly 10% more than the $425 million they’re paying for 2018 and 2022. That’s not a bad deal at all for Fox – managing to wrap up the World Cup for an extra cycle at just a 10% premium is a bargain. In Canada, Bell’s rights were also extended through 2026, and they’re paying just 4% more than the $40 million they’re paying in 2018 and 2022. However, they’ll pay 10% more if the 2026 tournament is held in the US.
Univision president Juan Carlos Rodriguez was confused by how FIFA handled the 2026 rights, and thinks the extension of the deal with Fox will be a blow towards America’s hopes of hosting the 2026 World Cup.
Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the president of sports for Univision Communications, said in a phone interview Thursday that FIFA failed to maximize the value of the United States rights in its deals with Fox and Telemundo and that the agreements jeopardized the possibility of the 2026 World Cup coming to America.
“If the rights are already fixed,” he said, “there’s little incentive to FIFA to award 2026 to the U.S.” He added: “If we had been asked to bid, we would have taken it very seriously.”
In an interesting twist, the Times also reports that MLS had an urge to get itself involved with a deal for the 2026 tournament to help itself grow in the States.
Now that we’ve unpacked all of this, what can we make of it? Well, FIFA did the deal with Fox, against all common sense, because they were afraid of having their books opened in the American court system and having all of their dirty laundry exposed to the public. As a result, they accepted what seems like a below market deal for the 2026 World Cup. It’s a huge coup for Fox, and their penance for getting such a great deal is having to market the 2022 World Cup against the NFL and college football.