In short, there are a ton of great matches to be played over the next week, matches that have positively enormous stakes, and few will be seen in this country. The reason is that FIFA gives the TV rights to the host federations and those federations sell to whatever media entities offer them the best deals. Thus, the Nats' game in Honduras on Saturday night that could end with our boys printing their boarding passes for Jan Smuts, er, Oliver Tambo International Airport will not be seen in this country except in certain bars, as if it were some 70s era stag party flick. Grant Wahl has the details:
The U.S. could clinch a World Cup berth on Saturday night, and not many American soccer fans will be watching.
That's the absurd situation we find ourselves in thanks to the screwy way that FIFA allows host countries to handle the video broadcast rights for World Cup qualifiers. As a result, the huge U.S.-Honduras game in San Pedro Sula (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET) will only be available in the U.S. on closed-circuit TV at a small number of bars and restaurants.
Keep in mind, we're talking about closed-circuit TV, not pay-per-view. In other words, you will not be able to see this game in your own home.
This is a trip back to the 1980s that nobody wants. The last event I saw on closed-circuit TV was the fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney more than 27 years ago.
How did this happen? I called Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF and a member of the FIFA executive committee, to find out. Blazer told me that for years, FIFA has allowed the host countries of World Cup qualifiers to sell the video rights to whomever they wish. Doing so, Blazer told me, allows national soccer federations to make much-needed money to support their operating expenses.
In the case of U.S.-Honduras, the Honduran federation sold the English- and Spanish-language video rights to a media company named Media World. ESPN, the usual broadcaster of U.S. games, was unable to reach a deal to buy the rights from Media World, nor were any other American cable or terrestrial TV outlets.
This problem extends beyond U.S. games. Because the rights to qualifiers are sold by each federation, we end up with a hodge-podge of games on Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV. We might have a huge qualifier being played between France and Italy, but we'll be forced to watch Estonia and Switzerland because our channels don't have the correct rights. In a flood of great games, the only live qualifier on GolTV this weekend is the barn-burner between Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago. Fox Soccer leads off with the match-up between bitter rivals Bahrain and New Zealand, before going to France vs. the Faroe Islands and the Denmark-Sweden tilt. One good game between the two networks.
If FIFA were in the 21st century, it would take control of the TV rights and license them out to major media outlets. For the U.S., they could sell the rights to all Nats games to ESPN, Mexico games to Univision, and then let Fox Soccer and GolTV bid on priority packages for the remainder. FIFA would make more money to distribute to the federations and it would help foster the growth of the game around the world by letting people see top games. Those of you who don't like footie, I could probably make you at least a casual fan over 90 minutes of Argentina-Uruguay; I'd have a hard time pulling that feat off with Bahrain-New Zealand.