ESPN and the Bundesliga announced Monday they had reached a six-year agreement that starts with the 2020-21 season. Select matches will be televised on ESPN's traditional networks but the overwhelming majority will be on ESPN+, an over-the-top service launched by The Walt Disney Co. affiliate in April 2018.
As part of the deal, ESPN also acquired rights to the German second division, the German Super Cup and relegation-promotion playoffs. ESPN's "SportsCenter" is likely to boost Bundesliga coverage. "We're going to be promoting it across the platform," ESPN+ general manager Russell Wolff said. "We'll make Bundesliga bigger than it's ever been before in the United States."
England's Premier League is the most-watched European soccer league in the U.S., averaging 423,000 viewers for telecasts in 2018-19 on NBC and NBCSN, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Bundesliga averaged 50,000 on Fox's English-language networks in 2018-19, the fourth of the league's five-season deal. Fox took over from GolTV, which had limited distribution.
ESPN+ replaced BeIN Sport as the primary U.S. outlet for Italy's Serie A starting in 2018-19, the same season it replaced Fox for England's FA Cup. ESPN+ also streams the Dutch Eredivisie and UEFA's Nations League, and it carried last summer's Copa América.
"Without a doubt the digital platforms are coming and are now delivering substantial fan bases, so they will be a more present players in these sports environments," Robert Klein, chief executive of Bundesliga International, said in a telephone interview. "People often talk about the U.S. as a saturated market in terms of soccer. There is actually a need for growth, and we see it first of all in the participation numbers in youth."
Spain's La Liga chose a different route. It agreed last month to a contract until 2024 with BeIN, which started televising the league in 2012-13 and also has a far smaller reach than ESPN and Fox. Several members of the U.S. national team are in the Bundesliga, including Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) and John Brooks (Wolfsburg).
Klein anticipates the league to work with ESPN on wraparound programming featuring players, a method NBC adopted to drive its American audience. The Bundesliga opened a U.S. office in New York last October that has five employees and assists on its clubs' exhibition tours.
"ESPN, we will be working with them now week in, week out. It will not be from a distance from Germany," Klein said. "We have a team on the ground who will be working with them on all these marketing activities. And therefore you will see an intensity and hopefully delivering for the fans. We're doing this so that we can connect with the fans and deliver to the people who care about football in general and the Bundesliga in particular."
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