Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's league matches will disappear from the television sets of many American soccer fans, starting this weekend.
That's because the U.S. television rights to Spain's La Liga have switched from GolTV to the new beIN Sport USA network, launched this week by the Al-Jazeera Sport Media Network and available in only about 8 million homes to viewers of DirecTV and DISH Network.
And it's not just Spain's soccer that is affected.
Italy's Serie A, France's Ligue 1, England's second-tier League Championship and England's League Cup also have moved to high-spending beIN Sport, which is taking over all of them from News Corp.'s Fox Soccer.
"The ratings are going to be so low that they will be almost unmeasurable," said Marc Ganis of the Chicago-based Sports Corp. Ltd., consulting firm. "Considering the push that European soccer is making in the United States, taking additional money and losing exposure becomes fools' gold. They need to have a long-term strategy, not short-term."
The new network will not be rated by Nielsen at the start, but hopes to be at some point, according to managing director Yousef Al Obaidly. It also will be available online to authenticated subscribers of DirecTV and DISH.
"There will be more announcements coming soon," he said Thursday. "We are in a discussion with all the cable operators. Hopefully, we can reach an agreement so we can keep everyone happy."
Now that the European seasons are starting, at least some clubs are worried their leagues made a mistake by taking dollars over distribution. Complicating the matter, a dispute broke out in Spain, with some clubs saying their television rights were sold by a company that doesn't own them.
"I know Madrid and Barcelona are already concerned by what has happened domestically," AC Milan director Umberto Gandini said in a telephone interview. "We were trying to maximize revenues ahead of visibility. Frankly speaking, we were not aware of such difficulties reaching viewers in the United States and the fact that we are going to be penalized highly by the difference in viewership."
The big Spanish and Italian clubs will have their Champions League and Europa League midweek games available in the U.S. on Fox. In addition, RAI USA distributes Serie A matches with Italian commentary and Ligue 1 games will be available with Spanish commentary on Univision Deportes.
All of this could make the U.S. market a soccer Tower of Babel.
"It's a complicated situation," Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho said. "I'm glad I'm just a coach and no more than that, and I think about football and the game and prepare my team."
The English Premier League, which has the biggest American following, sells its international rights directly. Serie A, which didn't centralize rights as a league until just a few years ago, sells them through the agency MP & Silva. La Liga sells them through Mediapro — but until an agreement this week to share domestic rights for three seasons, rival Prisa claimed it represented nine of the 20 clubs.
Imagina USA, a Miami-based company that is part of the Mediapro Group, is beIN Sports' production partner. The English network launched Aug. 3 in an online preview at www.beinsport.tv and beIN Sport announced Wednesday — the official launch date — it will be carried on DirecTV's sports tier in high and standard definition and beIN Sport en Espanol will be distributed on DirecTV Mas in standard definition. A day later, it said DISH Network will televise beIN Sport on its America's Top 250 and DISHLatino packages.
Looming ahead is bidding for the U.S. rights to the Premier League. Networks anticipate a request for proposal next month for the package starting in 2013-14 and running for three seasons. Fox currently holds the rights and sublicenses some to ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
"We might get into it. We might not," Al Obaidly said. "We have to look into scheduling and financials."
The EPL averaged 185,000 viewers for 118 live telecasts on Fox Soccer last year, 321,000 for 48 broadcasts on ESPN2/ESPN and 58,000 for 54 games on ESPN Deportes, according to data from Nielsen Media Research and the networks. Serie A averaged 54,000 viewers for 96 live telecasts on Fox and Ligue 1 53,000 for four broadcasts on Fox.
GolTV averaged just 29,000 viewers for 75 La Liga telecasts among its Hispanic audience, the only portion Nielsen measures. ESPN Deportes averaged 115,000 people in its Hispanic audience for La Liga, but viewers swelled to an average of 770,000 for the two league "clasicos" between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
"It's going probably from a better distributed network to lesser distributed network," said Lino Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes. "Therein lies the real difference to the viewer. Some of this product is going to be unavailable to many fans for which it was available to before."
Without La Liga, GolTV's only European league is the German Bundesliga, which had a rating in the network's Hispanic audience that was too low to measure. There has been speculation that beIN Sport USA would like to take over GolTV, if the price is right.
Play-by-play man Phil Schoen and highly excitable color commentator Ray Hudson have moved from GolTV to beIN Sport.
"GolTV has greatly enhanced its portfolio of soccer from the Americas," Rodrigo Lombello, GolTV's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "Reaching new agreements to air matches from the Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican club leagues, Gillette Brazil World Tour, CONCACAF tournaments and even the U.S. Open Cup, the network has placed an emphasis on this region in the past year as the United States Hispanic population continues to grow."
Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, is making a giant push in soccer. Qatar beat out the U.S. two years ago in bidding to host the 2022 World Cup, and the Qatar Investment Authority took control of Paris Saint-Germain and has spent about $200 million in transfer fees for players to strengthen its roster.
In France, Al-Jazeera bought rights to Ligue 1's Friday and Sunday night package from 2012-16; to most Champions League games from 2012-15; and to the 2012 and 2016 European Championship tournaments. In Spain, Barcelona agreed last year to a five-year, 170 million euro (then $225 million) sponsorship deal to carry the Qatar Foundation logo on its famous blue and red jerseys.
If the Premier League wants both beIN Sport's money and greater distribution, it could split its American rights into different packages for different time slots, as it does in Britain and as several U.S. leagues do at home. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore declined to comment ahead of the bidding.
"They are a little bit more sophisticated than us because they have been on the market as a collective-selling entity far longer than us," Milan's Gandini said. "We are still very far behind the Premier League."