Fox Launches Pay Euro Soccer Streaming Service

Michael Owen, Manchester United football club

Fox Sports International has unveiled a premium subscription video service showing every game from the UEFA Champions’ League soccer tournament, the world’s most glamorous and lucrative club competition. The preliminary rounds of the league gets underway Wednesday, and prices range from $9.95 for a single match to $99.95 for the season for access to ChampionsOnFox.com, a new section of the existing msn.foxsports.com.

It’s the first time every Champions’ League match has been streamed live online in the U.S. Bhavesh Patel, Fox Sport International’s VP for interactive media and a former director of global digital media for the NBA, told paidContent that the “jury is still out on whether advertising models work for sports content” and that online paid content is the only way Fox can make the most of its hard-won digital rights.

Digital first: “This is a first for us to be able to give people full access to a (soccer) league in one location online,” says Patel, referring to the patchwork of agreements that see the popular English Premier League competition broadcast on TV and online by Fox, ESPN (NYSE: DIS) and Setanta. Many fans in the U.S. and elsewhere simply choose to watch live soccer games illegally via a host of P2P sites and foreign re-streamers — the EPL is embroiled in a lengthy class-action suit against YouTube — so more accurately, it’s the first time fans can watch a whole tournament in one place legally. The service is also available throughout soccer-mad Latin America.

Ads don’t cut it:”It’s important to us to make sure we’re offering something of value, and we believe the best way to do that is make it free of advertising — so the best way to do that is to have a minimal charge.” Not only that, soccer isn’t the most ad-friendly sport: aside from a 15-minute half-time period, there are no natural breaks during play as with football or baseball, so advertisers would get scant opportunity to promote their brands anyway. Patel doesn’t rule out an ad-supported model for the sport one day, but adds: “I believe, following what MLB and NFL have learned from this marketplace, it’s difficult to earn back (costs) solely on advertising, particularly as these rights have to be paid for.”

NBA experience: Patel negotiated free video deals between the NBA and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO), YouTube, Joost and others, but he now says the NBA had more success from targeting consumers’ wallets than giving them content online for free: “We found that, by and large, when given the opportunity, the consumer will strangely be more willing to sign up when he has to pay for it than if he can just watch it for free.” For Patel, online sports broadcasters are left waiting for the “Hulu moment” that can support ad-funded content, but it’s nowhere in sight.

Mobile app: Fox is also launching a Java-based mobile app for soccer fans at FoxSoccer.com with “near-live” Champions’ League highlights. It’s available, initially, on AT&T (NYSE: T) and Sprint (NYSE: S) only.

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