FIFA went behind ESPN’s back and gave the 2026 World Cup to Fox without a bidding war, and no one knows why

Clint dempsey

In an unexpected announcement, FIFA awarded Fox Sports and Telemundo the broadcast rights to 2026 World Cup on Thursday.

It’s not a surprise that Fox will broadcast the tournament. But it’s a shock that FIFA awarded them the rights 11 years in advance without a bidding war with ESPN and NBC.

An ESPN spokesperson told BI that the company was not involved in any bidding process for the 2026 tournament, presumably because there wasn’t one.

The last time World Cup broadcast rights were awarded was 2011, when Fox outbid ESPN for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. That time around, FIFA had Fox, NBC, and ESPN present their bids in Zurich. When the news was announced, ESPN made a conciliatory statement on its loss:

“We made a disciplined bid that would have been both valuable to FIFA and profitable for our company, while continuing to grow our unprecedented coverage of the World Cup and Women’s World Cup events. We were aggressive while remaining prudent from a business perspective.”

There was no such statement this time, because there was no bidding war.

NBC declined to comment on whether they had an opportunity to bid on the English-language rights for the 2026 tournament (NBC owns Telemundo, the Spanish-language rights holder for the 2026 World Cup), directing such questions to FIFA.

We’ve reached out to FIFA for comment and are waiting their response.

Fox released the following statement and declined further comment:

“We are truly honored that FIFA has elected to extend FOX Sports’ rights to the portfolio of FIFA events including the FIFA World Cup™ and FIFA Women’s World Cup™ through 2026. These events are some of the world’s most important sports competitions, and it is our privilege to be entrusted with these rights in the United States. We’re looking forward to the kick-off of FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ in June with great anticipation.”

To make the move even more curious, there’s a distinct possibility that the 2026 World Cup will take place in the United States. The U.S. bid on the 2022 tournament, but lost out to Qatar. By 2026, it will have been 32 years since the World Cup was held in North America — the longest gap for any continent but Australia.

So FIFA is potentially selling the rights to a hometown World Cup in the biggest media market in the world, and it doesn’t bring in ESPN to drive up the price?

One popular theory in the American soccer world is that FIFA is giving Fox the 2026 tournament without a bidding war in exchange for Fox not causing a stink when FIFA moves the 2022 Qatar World Cup to the winter. Qatar initially promised to hold the tournament in summer with the help of futuristic cooling systems. But that plan has been abandoned, and FIFA is close to announcing when in winter the tournament will be played.

This is bad for Fox. In the summer, there’s no other relevant sporting events to compete with the World Cup. In winter, there’s the NFL playoffs and, potentially, the 2022 Olympics.

When asked about a winter World Cup in 2013, Fox Sports said, “Fox Sports bought the World Cup rights with the understanding they would be in the summer as they have been since the 1930s.”

Whatever the reason, Thursday’s news is a massive victory for Fox, which will now be the country’s World Cup broadcaster until at least 2030.

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