CBS Sports launched its UEFA Europa League coverage on Wednesday, exactly six weeks after Turner Sports opted out of its Champions League and Europa League deal. That isn’t much time to turn around a coverage plan, a broadcast team, and a studio set in a foreign country.
But CBS was able to get everything done just in time, and enjoyed a successful launch of what will now be a four-and-a-half year rights for UEFA’s club tournaments. The network added the remaining 18 months of Turner’s deal — the end of the current season and all of next season — to the rights it acquired last November for 2021-24. Friday brings the first day of Champions League coverage, with CBS Sports Network featuring Manchester City vs. Real Madrid at 3 p.m.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that while the new deal “kind of dropped in our laps.” it made sense for all parties involved.
“I think UEFA was motivated to have the deal done with CBS, because it wouldn’t have made sense to have another broadcaster come in just for these two years,” he said. “It was a relatively easy and amicable rights negotiation.”
McManus added that CBS and UEFA had already been talking “almost on a daily basis” since the initial rights deal was signed “about branding and promotion and sponsorship and production.”
CBS’s Champions League coverage is based in suburban London at IMG Studios, a company with vast soccer experience. It’s where UEFA’s world feeds are put together, and it’s where the English Premier League’s video replay referees are based.
The network hired an impressive array of broadcasters, many of whom are familiar to Americans. The best-known is host Kate Abdo, who was a Fox host for five years and led Turner’s coverage during its short run.
Abdo was abruptly put out of work by both networks when the pandemic struck: Turner because it stopped its coverage, and Fox because it didn’t do Bundesliga studio shows when the season resumed. Her Fox deal also included combat sports events that didn’t happen. She also had work lined up at the Olympics this summer.
Fortunately, CBS signed her in enough time for her to fly to London and go through the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from the United States.
“I’d been existing with the hope of the Bundesliga coming back and then the hope of Champions League, obviously — I never imagined that Turner would have decided to opt out,” she said. “Especially coming from a European background, you think of the Champions League as this kind of prestigious object that you hope to be able to get, so it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t continue with that coverage.”
The studio analysts are led by Belgium national team and former Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who was terrific on ESPN’s World Cup and European Championships coverage.
Former players involved include Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Micah Richards (Manchester City), Alex Scott (Arsenal), Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United) and Ruud Gullit (AC Milan and Chelsea). Scott and Schmeichel will be on site in Lisbon for the tournament-style ending to the Champions League campaign, with single-game knockouts from the quarterfinals on.
The play-by-play is led by two of England’s best-known voices: Clive Tyldesley on Champions League games and Peter Drury on Europa League games. The color analysts are Jim Beglin (Drury’s longtime colleague), Jermaine Jenas (ex-Newcastle and Tottenham) and Rob Green (Norwich, West Ham and more). And the sideline reporting team has heavy hitters: the BBC’s Seema Jaswal and Guillem Balague, ESPN’s Julien Laurens and The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein.
“To put this plan in place in a little more than two weeks has been pretty remarkable.” said McManus, who counted 16 hires in that span. “It was a pretty amazing process that I don’t think any of us have really gone through to this extent.”
Radovich credited CBS’ director of on-air talent Ben Stauber for making all the hires so quickly.
“In England, BT [Sport] covers the Champions League, so whoever wasn’t working for BT, we knew we had a shot with, so we started there,” Radovich said. “And then beyond England, we just started reaching out to people that we thought would make sense for us and who we thought could get to London.”
As of now, CBS doesn’t have any Americans on its TV coverage. That’s partly because of the pandemic, but it’s mostly intentional.
“We want it to be authentic, and obviously it’s a European product, it’s European football,” Radovich said. “When you’re dealing with a 14 day quarantine, of course that played in a little bit, but more than anything it was about being authentic and credible. The people we have on the set, we feel comfortable with to present this event to an audience so they’ll feel like they’re hearing from the best of the best.”
There are Americans in the online studio shows aired by CBS Sports HQ, a 24-hour sports channel on CBS’ website and apps. Former U.S. men’s national team star DaMarcus Beasley is an analyst, and his 2006 World Cup teammate Jimmy Conrad is the betting expert. Christina Unkel, a former referee who worked multiple World Cups and in U.S. women’s leagues, is the officiating analyst.
CBS is airing all games on its subscription streaming platform, CBS All Access, which costs $6 per month. There’s a free one-month trial period going on right now, which covers the rest of the UEFA season. A few Champions League games will also be televised on the CBS Sports Network cable channel. There will be games on CBS’ main broadcast channel in the future, but the schedule was already full when this summer’s deal got done.
It’s not known, though, whether CBS will carry the women’s Champions League. Historically, those rights have been sold by each game’s home team, except for the neutral-site final. UEFA won’t fully centralize the broadcast rights until next year. But since this year’s women’s Champions League is also ending with a single-site tournament, fans who enjoyed CBS’ coverage of the NWSL Challenge Cup hope the network will step up.
“We’re always discussing and exploring, but as of right now, we don’t hold those rights,” CBS Sports Digital executive vice president Jeff Gerttula said. “We’re discussing. I think there’s a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer right now — we’re seeing, one, if there’s a path, and two, if it makes sense given the timing.”
This much is certain: CBS cares more about soccer overall now than it ever has before. That includes McManus himself.