The pandemic-enforced changes to the Champions League presented the perfect format for CBS to find to broadcast European soccer’s showpiece competition earlier than planned in the United States.
Rather than the usual home-and-away series for the quarterfinals and semifinals, UEFA has adopted a rapid two-week, eight-team knockout tournament in Lisbon, Portugal, culminating in the Aug. 23 final.
“It’s a phenomenal format for us in the U.S. to do it this way,” ViacomCBS chief digital officer Marc DeBevoise told The Associated Press. “A single elimination tournament is something these audiences fully understand. Obviously ,there are big soccer fans but March Madness having been effectively canceled, I think people are hungry for things like this.”
CBS was not due to start airing European club competitions until 2021 after signing a three-season deal with UEFA last November. But the rights to the rest of this Champions League season and all of next season became available last month when Turner opted out of its 2018-21 deal for exclusive English language rights in the United States.
“The audience in the U.S. for the sport is younger, more diverse, more active on social media,” DeBevoise said.
The competition will be used to push the CBS All Access digital subscription service, which will stream every game in the Champions League and second-tier Europa League. Marquee matches will air on the main network and CBS Sports Network.
“I think this property is built for the internet in some way — August is a single elimination tournament tournament and that’s an amazing, unique piece,” DeBevoise said. “When it comes to October when you have got six, eight (group stage) games on a Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. (ET) — that doesn’t make sense on TV.
“One game can be but getting six games is not possible. So what we’re really focused on is making sure that experience is really great for fans when they come to our service and that it really speaks to them and has the right wraparound pieces.”
Champions League coverage will start on CBS on Aug. 7-8 with the four round of 16 second legs that were not played in March before the competition was suspended due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
UEFA announced Thursday that those games will be played as usual at the stadium of the home team.
Bayern is the clearest favorite to advance having won 3-0 at Chelsea in the first leg in London in February. Manchester City won 2-1 away at Real Madrid, Juventus trails 1-0 against Lyon, and Barcelona resumes at 1-1 against Napoli at Camp Nou. Atalanta, Atlético Madrid, Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain already advanced to the quarterfinals in March.
Attention then shifts to Lisbon with the curtailed format that should allow UEFA to complete a competition that was originally due to finish in May.
Starting on Aug. 12, the Champions League quarterfinals will be played on four straight nights in single-leg knockout games at the home stadiums of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. The semifinals are on Aug. 18 and 19, and Benfica’s Stadium of Light hosts the final on Aug. 23. No fans will be allowed into the games.
CBS plans to use the world feed commentaries of matches provided by UEFA rather than using its own announcers at this stage. CBS is also racing to create its own content around the games.
“We understand that commitment to the sport and how discerning the fan is in the United States,” DeBevoise said.
The Turner deal was worth a reported $100 million per season, combined with Univision’s Spanish language rights. CBS and Univision are paying a reported $140 million annually during the 2021-24 broadcast deal. That includes the third-tier Europa Conference League, which kicks off next year.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.
More must-read entertainment coverage from Fortune:
- How movie theaters can make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic
- Jonathan Majors on making Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and how it’s ‘popping off’ at the right time
- Christian Slater on retelling the Betty Broderick story in the new season of Dirty John
- Inside On the Record and the sexual assault accusations against Russell Simmons
- When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs