TV rights in limbo for upcoming U.S. World Cup qualifier

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The games will soon become very important for Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team. No question about it; two World Cup qualifiers are just around the corner.

The question is: Will you be able to see them all?

In about a month the United States will open World Cup qualifying at home against Antigua & Barbuda. No sweat on watching that one. It’s a home match, which means U.S. Soccer controls the broadcast rights. You can see it on ESPN or Univision (en Español).

But four days later on June 12 the United States travels to Guatemala in what promises to be a far tougher assignment, Klinsmann’s first road test in the choppy CONCACAF waters.

Whether you’ll see that one … that’s tough to say.

As of today, no major U.S. carrier has hold of this one. U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe told me this morning negotiations continue with the rights holder, MediaPro, but is sounds like there’s much to be sorted out.

Buethe couldn’t be very specific, which means negotiations are probably sensitive.

“U.S. Soccer wants the TV broadcasts to reach the widest audience possible,” Buethe told me. “But ultimately the rights holder has the option of how it wants to distribute the broadcast they’ve purchased. In conjunction with our broadcast partners, we will exhaust all our options during discussions with rights holders to have the game broadcast in the U.S.”

With TV rights for CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, host nations are free to distribute broadcast rights at their discretion – and at any price.

In this case, the Guatemalan federation sold the English-language and Spanish-language broadcast rights to Spanish TV producer MediaPro. MediaPro is free to negotiate from there, with U.S. Soccer, ESPN, Univision, etc.  (If U.S. Soccer were to purchase the rights it would sell them to a network carrier or split the cost, etc.)

Or, as in the case of a 2009 qualifier in Honduras, MediaPro can assign the match to closed circuit TV, leaving U.S. fans scrambling for the nearest soccer friendly bar and such.

That’s hardly ideal. For anybody. I mean, closed circuit TV for soccer? Throw in classic Pac-Man and some cold war hysteria and its 1981 all over again.

There are important matters of precedent at work here for U.S. Soccer and its broadcast partners. Because the June match against Guatemala is just a start; this trap door will spring again for future road qualifiers – believe it.

So before U.S. Soccer, ESPN, Univision or whoever goes buying up rights for one match, they must consider the significant costs of production in foreign lands in addition to, essentially, setting the market price for matches ahead.

See? Tricky business, eh? And all you want to do is enjoy some World Cup qualifier action without ponying up $25 to the bouncer at Moe’s Tavern.

When will all this be resolved? There’s not a hard answer on that one.

“The sooner the better,” Buethe said. “We want to be able to inform our fans what the situation is for a very important game for us. We want to inform them either way, whether it’s going to be on TV or not.”