Out of nowhere, FIFA awarded broadcast rights to their tournaments from 2023 to 2026 to FOX, Telemundo and Bell (CTV/TSN) in Canada. This blindsided most every soccer and sports media onlooker, not only because of the timing of the announcement, but that this happened at all. Immediately, because we're dealing with FIFA, suspicions of something deeper and dirtier were raised. There has to be a reason for this, right? Let's put on our tinfoil hats and try to work out why FIFA would pull the trigger on this move seemingly out of the blue.
The 2026 World Cup is not a stone-cold lock to be awarded to a CONCACAF nation, but most everyone assumes that it's either going to go to the US or Canada, possibly Mexico. This means that FIFA could stoke an expensive bidding war for TV rights on both sides of the border, but they've now deliberately undercut that possibility. FIFA are incredible at money grubbing, so why would they throw millions upon millions of dollars out the window with almost no prodding? Let's clear up a few facts first:
Awarding of TV rights with no bidding is not uncommon. The IOC just did this when they awarded all Olympic rights to NBC through 2032, and no one so much as batted an eyebrow when that was announced. ESPN and Turner did the same thing when they re-upped with the NBA recently. Usually these types of events are opened up to bidding but it is not a shock when they aren't. So the anger from ESPN, Univision, and NBC executives is somewhat misplaced.
The idea that this announcement would be tied into Sunil Gulati publicly backing Sepp Blatter's biggest competitor for the FIFA Presidency, Prince Ali, is ludicrous. If it was, then why would FIFA also award Canadian TV rights to the same tournaments to Bell if Canada is in bed with Traffic Sports, which has deep ties to the smaller CONCACAF nations who would likely vote Blatter for FIFA President? It's a tough argument to buy.
Would this be a rubber stamp that CONCACAF is guaranteed a World Cup in 2026? Maybe, but there is always the possibility of an Australian bid, and a major media mogul Down Under is the same Rupert Murdoch that owns FOX. So that's a bit of a stretch as well.
But what is more interesting are a few minor details from today's announcement: FOX would, under normal circumstances, have prepared a giant media outlay to celebrate their capture of another major sports rights property, especially one that is likely to ascend in value as time progresses. Instead, they released one small statement and referred all other questions to FIFA. We have also not heard much from Bell executives and personalities on the announcement of this deal either. Richard Deitsch of SI has also reported that ESPN was unaware of rights bidding for 2023-2026 FIFA events and had no contact with FIFA on the subject. It's not a stretch to assume ESPN would have bid heavily for these tournaments.
This leads me to believe this announcement was made out of the blue on a FIFA whim only, and there were little if no consultations with the folks at FOX, Telemundo and Bell about it. So why would FIFA do this?
It all ties back to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Among the loudest dissenters for a November-December 2022 tournament would be the American and Canadian TV networks because of the competition from domestic sports that they would have to juggle, the least of which being the NFL. Does this mean the World Cup is a lock to be played in November-December of 2022? Basically.
This was (likely) a kickback from FIFA to both FOX and Bell for disrupting their own domestic sports calendars, meaning that they'd pay far less than what they'd have to in a bidding war for these tournaments in exchange for not putting up a fight when FIFA essentially screws them over by moving the tournament out of summer. Everybody wins, right? If you mean everyone except NBC, ESPN, Rogers, CBC, and most soccer fans who find the idea of a World Cup in Qatar let alone one in winter stupid as all hell, not to say anything about the operators of leagues in Europe whose schedules will be thrown out of whack for this scheduling adjustment.
FIFA made it's own bed in this mess, and now has to lie in it. In doing so, they screwed themselves out of many millions of TV dollars in the US and Canada, which might look incredibly foolish if/when one of them wins the right to host the 2026 World Cup.
Add this one on the pile of FIFA mistakes. It's almost as tall as Taipei 101.