In an ideal world, CBS wouldn't have earned all the acclaim it has drawn from across American soccer for its UEFA Champions League and Europa League coverage this month.
If that seems strange to read, well, remember that CBS wouldn't have UEFA rights in the first place if the coronavirus pandemic hadn't upended Turner Sports. Turner opted out of its contract with UEFA in late June, with a year and a half left on the deal. CBS stepped up in early July, and built its whole operation — announcers, analysts, broadcast slots, and studios in the U.S. and England — in barely a month.
If there was no pandemic, Turner would still have English-language broadcast rights, with games on TNT and Bleacher Report’s subscription streaming platform.
So if, for example, you wish CBS would have forced through changes to its programming schedule to get more games on linear television, well … you aren't alone, but just remember the context.
Then add this into the mix: as natural as it seems for CBS to have its studio in London, it’s there because of the pandemic. When the network was planning for its originally-scheduled debut next year, the plans were to be based at CBS Sports’ traditional New York home. But the tight turnaround and quarantine mandates in the U.S. and England led CBS to instead rent space at IMG Studios in the London suburb of Stockley Park.
The current setup has been so successful that CBS plans to keep the studio in London through the 2020-21 season, coordinating producer Pete Radovich said.
“I don’t see why we would pivot at this point, and quite frankly, we don’t have the time to pivot — we start up again in about a month and a half,” he said. “Everything is in place to do it here again, so I think what we’ll probably end up doing and decide pretty shortly is, we’ll do this season coming up here, and then after this coming season regroup and figure out a longer-term plan.”
For the moment, Radovich is, as he put it, “the only American in the building” at IMG. But he’s used to the surroundings, having lived in Europe some as a kid. He still has relatives there.
"Everyone at CBS knows I don't need my arm twisted to go to Europe," he said. "I'm very comfortable here and I'm very happy to be here, and happy to be continuing here."
Radovich has taken his share of razzing over the years from CBS colleagues who didn't care much for the world's game. But opinions have changed in recent times.
"Typical anti-soccer American stuff — I won't say who, but that's definitely happened over the years, all in jest," he said. "I think they're more respectful of it [now] because of what's happened with the internet. … When [Barcelona's Lionel] Messi scores a great goal, every kid sees it within seconds. These guys aren't just sort of a name."
The adults see the highlights too, and the stature of the game's stars. Radovich said he's even heard from a few CBS on-air types who'd like to be part of the UEFA coverage. He didn't name them, but he said he's thinking about their interest.
(Here's an outsider's guess at a name to file away: Andrew Catalon. The NFL, college basketball and golf play-by-play voice is a longtime soccer fan, and a cousin of former Houston Dynamo player Mac Steeves.)
The best news of all for CBS has been the quality of the games in the unique single-elimination format UEFA has used this summer. It surely won't last, but it has helped get American fans' attention. (It has for Univision, too: the Spanish-language network's viewership has smashed Champions League multiple records.)
And there was the cherry on top of Tyler Adams' game-winning goal for RB Leipzig in the quarterfinals. It was possibly the biggest ever goal scored by an American in a European club competition, and it certainly commanded American fans' attention.
"That was a fun moment in the control room," Radovich said. "I turned to our editorial director Mark Young and said, 'Is that really Tyler Adams, and he said, 'Yeah.' I just started yelling, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!" in the control room, and got a big laugh."
Young is known to American soccer fans as the editorial director of Fox's World Cup coverage. He previously worked on ESPN and NBC Olympics soccer productions. It turns out he's also been part of CBS' NFL team for a long time. Young and Radovich met 15 years ago when Radovich was a freelancer for NBC at Wimbledon.
"He and I have worked together forever — he's my writer on Inside the NFL for the last 12 years," Radovich said. "I have a Brit writing American football. Yeah, go figure."
Radovich also had Brits talking American soccer after Adams' goal, and not all of them knew much about the player. But host Kate Abdo did, thanks to her many years at Fox and Turner. She steered the ship well in the postgame show after Leipzig's win, and interviewed DaMarcus Beasley and Jesse Marsch in the following days.
"The fact that we were able to go to DaMarcus Beasley from our HQ set, that was a nice luxury that I think helped us," Radovich said. "As time goes by, we'll be able to do more and more stuff like that: two-ways with American former players, current players. And definitely, any time there's an American storyline, we're going to jump all over it, obviously, given our audience."
That’s good news for fans who worried when CBS rolled out an entirely foreign studio crew and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus called it “authenticity.”
Now attention turns to Friday’s Europa League final and Sunday’s men’s Champions League final. Both games will air on CBS Sports Network with lots of studio coverage before and after.
(There’s also the women’s Champions League tournament that starts Friday, with world feed broadcasts of games on CBS All Access.)
Add everything up and it's 17 dates of studio coverage for 25 games from Aug. 5-23, plus a "28-day sprint" before then to set it all up. Radovich didn't get a day off until this past Thursday, and he didn't mind.
“It’s like a dream come true, except I never dreamed this because I honestly never thought we’d ever do soccer — certainly not the Champions League,” he said. “It’s been a grind, but there’s honestly never been any moment where [I’ve said] this sucks.”