When CBS Sports started planning its coverage of this season’s UEFA Champions League group stage, its behind-the-scenes staff had a novel idea.
They knew that previous rightsholders Univision and Fox had done successful whiparound shows before, as online supplements to the networks’ TV and streaming packages. They also knew the popularity of NFL Red Zone, from their long experience broadcasting the league.
Why not make a Champions League whiparound show the main course of CBS’ coverage instead of a side dish?
Pete Radovich, CBS’ lead soccer producer, believed it would work.
“Of everything that was unknown for us going in, this was probably the one place I was more confident than anything else,” he said. “You of course question yourself when you’re doing something new for the first time … This was the one place where I felt like I can’t see this not working.”
That bet has paid off. CBS’ Golazo Show, hosted by Nico Cantor and Gus Poyet, has won widespread praise. Unfortunately, CBS Sports Network’s Nielsen ratings aren’t made public like they are for other networks, so we don’t know exactly what the viewership has been. But public reaction on social media and in the press has been positive.
The online side of things has also been successful, according to Jeff Gerttula, the executive vice president and general manager of CBS Sports Digital. While the TV side has had the whiparound show, the CBS All Access streaming platform has had every game live, plus extensive studio and highlight shows, for $5.99 per month.
“We had strong audience, so we feel like the overall business performance is exceeding what we had hoped,” he said. “I think we’re in a good spot there to just continue to improve the experience for consumers over the term of the [Champions League] deal.”
Unfortunately for the public, CBS’ non-disclosure of its viewership figures extends to its streaming platform. When Gertulla was asked if he could put some numbers behind the phrase “strong audience,” he said politely, “We can’t do that.”
Three moments from the calendar year stand out: Tyler Adams’ quarterfinal-winning goal for RB Leipzig on Aug. 13; Diego Maradona’s death on Nov. 25; and the Paris Saint-Germain vs. Istanbul Baskasehir game on Dec. 8, which was suspended midway through the first half after a linesman was accused of racist behavior toward a Baskasehir assistant coach.
The first of those was cause for celebration, being arguably the biggest goal ever scored by an American in Europe. The latter two, as Gerttula put it, were “sensitive topics … where we really needed our talent to step up. And we were happy that they did.”
Radovich said CBS’ coverage of Maradona’s death “was the moment we graduated as a show from a start-up to [something] legitimate.”
» From our archives: Diego Maradona scored his last World Cup goal in the United States
Those big moments have also helped make CBS’ studio shows destination programming for soccer fans. Because the big European leagues don’t play on Champions League game days, the audiences for those leagues all come together — plus fans who follow soccer in U.S., Mexico, and the rest of the world.
Radovich hasn’t hesitated to take advantage of that, ensuring that CBS’ studio shows talk about the entire sport and not just Champions League games.
“Everyone that’s involved in this property, from Jeff and myself to obviously the talent, but behind the scenes [also], is a fan of the sport and grew up with the sport,” he said. “I think that helps the understanding that the European Champions League fan is also a fan of the Brazilian league and MLS. … Our audience clearly is watching MLS, and we’re not going to put our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist. It exists and we’re going to talk about it.”
That is amplified, Radovich said, by “all the Americans we have playing” for big European teams right now, some of whom used to play in MLS.
“It’d be silly not to talk about it,” he concluded. “I just always felt like focusing only on your property was very short-sighted, and that goes for anything that I work on, whether it’s ‘Inside The NFL’ or anything. … The fans know, so why not just talk about it?”
Now CBS turns to planning for the Champions League and Europa League knockout rounds, which start Feb. 1. Because there will only be two games per day in the Champions League, a whiparound show might not make sense. But there will be 16 on the first day of the Europa League’s round of 32, so we might see a whiparound show for that.
“Four [simultaneous games] feels like the minimum to make it a really kind of strong, compelling product,” Gerttula said.
The question then becomes whether CBS will be able to get both Champions League games televised on a given day. Unfortunately, there isn’t an answer yet.
Also unknown is whether CBS will be able to have commentators on site at games instead of working off studio monitors. That will of course depend on the state of the pandemic, but Radovich is going to try to make it happen.
This much is certain: when the 2021 NWSL season begins in the spring, expect to see cross-promotion between CBS’ two soccer properties. The network now has a year-round soccer offering that appeals to a wide range of viewers.
“It’s what the fans want, and I think we’ll look for organic opportunities,” Gerttula said. “It’s something we’re going to be talking more about, and I think where we can, we will.”
Radovich doesn’t work on NWSL broadcasts, but he also hopes to see it.
“It just makes too much sense not to,” he said. “In my mind, they will be forever tied together just because the NWSL and the coverage that we had … was so good that it gave us a little bit of credibility coming in to say, ‘Hey, CBS can do this right.’ "