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Rupert Murdoch is reportedly exploring a global summer soccer tournament with top European teams that would air on pay TV companies and networks owned by 21st Century Fox, the entertainment company created by Friday’s split of his media conglomerate, News Corp.
The Guardian first reported that the possible 16-team summer tournament would feature big English Premier League clubs, such as Manchester United and London’s Chelsea, as well as top German and Spanish sides, that would play each other in foreign cities, such as L.A. and Shanghai. That would give it a Formula One-type flavor, with teams traveling a world circuit similar to that of the international racing tournament.
The Guardian said the new tournament could start in 2015, with games aired on U.K. pay TV giant BSkyB, in which 21st Century Fox owns a 39 percent stake; the conglomerate’s Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland; and some of the company’s Fox International Channels networks.
Exclusive rights to such a premium sports event could also help Murdoch in the U.S., where next month the company is launching new sports network Fox Sports 1, but lost rights to air Premier League soccer matches to NBC for the next three seasons.
Entertainment industry analysts say if the tournament does come together, it could draw viewers, including in such markets as the U.S. and Asia, where the audience appetite for soccer seems to be increasing.
“It’s great content,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank.
But industry observers say the potential competition faces a slew of timing and organizational challenges.
“The schedule is already crowded, and every second year, European players also have to play either in the World Cup or in the European Cup,” said Claudio Aspesi, European media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “The odds that this will prove just an expensive set of ‘quasi-friendlies’ is high.”
He added: “Similar experiments in other sports have failed — from the BSkyB support for A1 Grand Prix to the United States Football League.” Over the summer, European soccer fans are also distracted or on holiday, he said.
It may all come down to how much money 21st Century Fox is willing to pay. “If [the company] spends enough money, it may matter,” Aspesi said. “The clubs are perennially hungry for more. Overall, it looks like an attempt to keep Fox relevant in the light of losing the key football rights.”
The idea of creating a soccer super league of top teams is nothing new.
Back in 2009, Italian sports management company Media Partners made a serious bid to set up a European super league of top sides to effectively replace the current pan-European soccer tournament, the Champions League. But Champions League organizer UEFA — European soccer’s administrative body, which is made up of more than 50 national soccer associations — effectively killed the Italian plan by expanding the Champions League tournament, which made it more attractive to the top clubs that were thinking of defecting to the planned super league.
Murdoch’s reported plan, however, is significantly different than previous super-league proposals in that it the proposed tournament would run during the summer break when national leagues have finished.
Top-flight teams already play exhibition games in the U.S. and Asia on their summer break from their European leagues, but the games have little value either as sporting events or as ratings-grabbing television broadcasts.
Chelsea, for one, played English league rivals Manchester City in the U.S. after the regular season ended and is also playing games in Thailand, Malaysia, India and back in the U.S. before the fall season kicks off.
The Murdoch idea seems designed to appeal to top squads, which are used to exhibition games over the summer, but might be reluctant to leave the lucrative Champions League for an untested new tournament, observers said.
It could also appeal to teams interested in better monetizing their international fan base outside of Europe. Elite squads such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich see global fans, and the corresponding sponsorship deals, as the key to future growth. The proposed new league would fit nicely into that global strategy.
For Murdoch, who operates pay TV companies in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Italy and Asia, the tournament’s global reach could be translated into effective cross-border marketing and sponsorship deals.
Holding a summer tournament would also get around legal problems with UEFA, which has a contract that runs through 2018 with 137 of Europe’s top clubs binding them to the current season setup.
But there are still problems. Any new summer league could only be held every two years because of conflicts with the World Cup and European Cup competitions, both among the most popular sporting events worldwide. A new soccer league would have little chance against these ratings behemoths.
Extending the current season is also certain to raise objections from UEFA that top players are being stretched too thin. If injury or fatigue forced superstars such as Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to sit out half the summer, the new league could be dead in the water.
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