Archive for the ‘TV rights’ Category

Snowboarder’s “triple rodeo” and the YouTube-ification of sport

British snowboarder Billy Morgan landed what is believed to be the first “triple rodeo” in December while training in Colorado. At the time of writing, different edits of his stunt have attracted close to 1m views on YouTube. It is a reminder for many other sports of what it takes to get attention.

Morgan’s video was picked up initially by the extreme sports community on websites including Onboard but it soon reached the mainstream media via ESPN and, in recent days, The Sun and the BBC. Extreme sports participants have been filming each other doing tricks ever since the bulky camcorder was invented. With the improvements in technology and an awareness of the marketing potential of stunts, it’s highly likely that a spectacular move will be captured on camera. Red Bull is among the sponsors that have moved into this market (see, for example, street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill).

Spectacular moments or passages of play occur in virtually all sports but there will generally only be a couple of incidents in dozens of hours of competition that can generate significant interest on YouTube and its rivals. In the last couple of weeks clips doing the rounds have included Tim Howard’s goal for Everton from his own penalty box and Jerome Simpson’s front flip to score a touchdown for the Cincinnati Bengals.

While these types of incidents during competition are rare, there is no reason why athletes from individual or team sports can’t have a go at some types of tricks during training – not everything that succeeds on YouTube involves risking your life. Teams and sponsors have been in on the act for some time (see, for example, the All Blacks showing off their skills and quarterback Johnny McEntee of the University of Connecticut).

There is scope to do more, particularly among lower profile sports whose major competitions may not generate much TV coverage. Demonstrations of endurance, strength or flexibility can impress viewers in sports that don’t easily lend themselves to stunts. Video training diaries are now commonplace but it’s a bigger project to produce a high quality film with the potential to attract a sizeable internet audience, requiring a fair amount of planning and investment.

Coaches, athletes and fans who value tradition in sport sometimes feel that such stunts are trivial or a distraction from the main priority of preparing for competition, which is true. We might prefer it if all fans would watch the finals of the national champinoships live. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of 30 second clips available to watch which compete for our attention. For an audience used to dogs on skateboards, a “triple rodeo” is the least they expect.

On-demand TV is mainstream. What does it mean for sport?

There was a time when Christmas TV brought the whole of the UK together: 30 million viewers watched EastEnders on Christmas Day in 1986. 25 years later the top-rated Christmas show was again EastEnders but the audience was just under 10 million. There are significant consequences of this audience fragmentation, not least for sport.

From the early 1990s until a couple of years ago the declining audiences could be attributed to the huge increase in the number of TV channels available. Since 2008, however, the launch of on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and equivalents on other channels has added a new range of competition to network TV. The UK scene has become particularly complicated in the last few months with the arrival of Amazon company Lovefilm, the relaunch of YouTube, Sky Go, the availability of on-demand TV channels via Microsoft’s Xbox, and the imminent arrival of Netflix, which has been a huge success in North and South America.

The outcome for consumers (apart from total confusion) is that they can watch more or less anything at any time on any device with a screen.

So what does this mean for sport?

1) Sport can provide a larger proportion of “shared national moments” than in the past

There are few network TV shows that can now reach a huge audience with a single broadcast. A handful of reality programmes and major news items (covered on multiple channels) manage to do so. Sports events such as Wimbledon, the Grand National and England football matches in the World Cup and EURO also provide these “national moments”. A fair number of sports have occasional opportunities to join this list, when they have a popular British star or team who is expected to perform well in a major tournament. The reward for sports that get it right is significant – cyclist Mark Cavendish won the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which would have seemed implausible a few years ago.

2) Premium sports events become ever more attractive because of their ability to draw a live audience

It’s a familiar story: the sports events which command large rights fees already tend to increase in value because they guarantee eyeballs across various platforms for live broadcasts. However, regulatory changes could have a big impact over a period of time as governments and the EU adjust to advancing technology.

3) It’s more difficult than before to draw an audience to watch a sport or event which is unfamiliar

The chance of consumers stumbling across a sports event on TV by chance and watching it is presumably declining all the time. If you don’t actively select sports channels on the various TV platforms and you don’t flick through network channels, you’ll miss the event. Unfortunately, the probable consequence is that all sports apart from the most premium properties will be restricted to channels with low audiences or pay-per-view systems which only existing fans will watch.

4) Magazine sports shows may be worth another go

Magazine-style sports shows still exist but they tend to be cult or niche programmes (such as Soccer Saturday and World Olympic Dreams)  rather than the mass-market Grandstand of years gone by. With the right approach and access to highlights clips (regulatory changes may help here) there could be a decent audience for a magazine sports show which can be watched as it is broadcast or on demand in the following days. To be successful such programmes would need to provide content across a range of digital channels, not just a TV show.

In conclusion, sport provides exciting live content which will always appeal to TV viewers but sports rights-holders face an increasingly difficult challenge to devise and implement a broadcast strategy.

FIFA’s huge new TV deals – limited commercial pressure to reform so far

On 27 October FIFA announced new TV deals for 2015-2022 in Australia, Canada and the Caribbean. The way the money is rolling in, FIFA’s leadership must be comforted that the damage to its reputation in recent months seems to be having little financial impact.

Together with the recently concluded USA deal, the combined total for TV contracts so far for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 plus the other FIFA events is $1.85bn USD. FIFA has also awarded a contract to sell the rights in numerous Asian countries (excluding Japan and Korea) to an agency called Infront Sports and Media. Rights for the still more lucrative European markets have not yet been finalised.

Add in some long-term sponsorship agreements (Heineken has just extended through to 2022) and it is clear that FIFA has already signed contracts which should bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, ten years into the future.

Few organisations of any kind can be so confident about their income for the next ten years, let alone an organisation which has just announced reform plans following serious allegations of corruption.

The plans received a cautious welcome from Transparency International and some other commentators but it will take at least a few months to see how the reforms are progressing. However, the big TV and sponsorship deals followed only days later, no doubt after a lengthy period of negotiation.

There are signs that FIFA is under some pressure from its commercial partners. Several sponsors expressed concern at the allegations involving FIFA in May this year and it’s possible that the private conversations went further than the mild public statements.

In addition, the renewed TV rights contract with Infront Sports and Media has been criticised by Transparency International because the company is headed by the nephew of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

With the all-important European TV rights for 2018 and 2022 still to be sold and with various sponsorship packages to be negotiated, there is an opportunity for FIFA’s commercial partners to exert some influence.

Understandably, sponsors and broadcasters will be reluctant to do anything which damages their chances of securing a contract because the World Cup draws an enormous audience in many countries around the world.

It will therefore require a careful approach and good leadership but there is a chance for FIFA’s commercial partners to have a positive impact on the governance of football. After all, they pay the bills.

“Winning Grim” – when ugly doesn’t go far enough

“Winning ugly”, the expression coined by former tennis player and leading coach Brad Gilbert is no longer an adequate way to describe how some teams and, less often, individual athletes find their way to victory. I would like to suggest “winning grim” as a term to explain the logical conclusion of this trend.

Brad Gilbert, a player of modest talent but great tactical understanding and mental strength, made himself very difficult to beat by dogged determination. His now famous book “Winning Ugly” is a manual for getting the best out of yourself and for finding a way to win against opponents who are slightly better. It covers match preparation but is primarily concerned with tactics on the field of play.

The term is now widely used in sport, perhaps most often by fans frustrated that a team or player is failing to win ugly. That is to say, they are losing games which they are capable of winning, lacking the killer touch, inconsistent.

“Winning grim” goes further. Winning grim refers to teams and occasionally individual athletes plus their management who take a more holistic view of sport and seek to influence all the factors which can determine the result of a match. The masters of winning grim are often the leading contenders in their sport. Exponents of winning grim will have a strategy for considerations such as these off the field of play:
- The structure of competitions (method of qualification, schedules, the way the draw is done etc.)
- Legal challenges before, during and after competition (on issues such as player eligibility, suspensions etc.)
- The priorities of broadcasters and sponsors (what final they would ideally like to see, style of commentary, length of agreements etc.)
- Pre-match PR (putting psychological pressure on opponents, match officials, spreading rumours)

They will also be expert at the use of specific tactics on the field which go a step beyond the requirements of winning ugly:
- Pressurising match officials for maximum impact
- Time-wasting when in a potentially winning position or to disrupt the opponent’s momentum
- Tactical use of injuries (exaggerating injuries to give team-mates a rest or influence the referee)
- Choosing ultra low-risk tactics when a normal tactic would probably suffice (think of a rugby team repeatedly kicking long when leading or a football team substituting an attacker for a defender when 2-0 up)
- Selecting players who are consistent but limited in place of others who are more talented but unpredictable

Winning grim is the logical end-point when fans, financial backers and political stakeholders demand results. It is a strategy motivated by fear which is perfectly focused on the bigger prize. For this reason winning grim is better suited to league competition and major tournaments rather than to individual matches.

Winning grim should not be equated with cheating. Winning grim is legal and sometimes necessary, especially after a series of disappointments in big events. Eventually, however, winning grim will leave fans joyless and frustrated, alienating federations and other stakeholders along the way. You can’t afford to win grim all the time.

Masters of winning grim include José Mourinho and the England football team. It is to the great credit of the All Blacks that it was only in the final against France that they had to resort to winning grim. After a long wait for their second Rugby World Cup victory we should forgive them.

Misery for Wales; referee’s place in online history assured

It’s unusual in a team sport for one refereeing decision to determine the result of a major match quite as conclusively as happened today when Wales lost to France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Consequently, the referee Alain Rolland can be assured of notoriety online which will last a generation.

In the 18th minute of the first half the Wales captain Sam Warburton tackled French player Vincent Clerc illegally (for the detail of the law see 10.4 (j) here). Rolland immediately showed Warburton the red card, leaving Wales to play a man short for over an hour.

Many observers believe the tackle deserved a penalty and a yellow card at most (see, for example Dylan Cleaver in the New Zealand Herald). As Brendan Gallagher points out in the Daily Telegraph, the International Rugby Board has recently tightened the law on so-called spear tackles.

Curiously, Rolland chose not to consult the assistant referees (linesmen). The laws of rugby make provision for use of video replays for certain decisions but not currently for foul play unless it is in the in-goal area (see 6.A.6 (b) here).

In the end France just made it through to the final, winning 9-8. Wales had a kick which scraped the wrong side of the post and other chances which they weren’t quite able to take.

Alain Rolland’s entry on Wikipedia was rapidly hacked and may end up being locked to prevent further abuse. At the time of writing, the entry questions his neutrality, mentioning the fact that his father is French.

Inevitably, there has been widespread criticism of the referee on Twitter from the likes of former England player Jeremy Guscott and the disparaging remarks of former South African captain Francois Pienaar during the television commentary have also been tweeted.

The first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones said that he believed Rolland’s decision had been wrong and had “wrecked the game”.

Leaving aside the specifics of this incident, what should be done to reduce the risk of an incorrect decision by a referee changing the result of an important match?

The stakes are very high in international sport and there is intense pressure on match officials. Their authority is undermined when fans see in replays that a mistake has been made. It would seem reasonable for rugby referees to be required to use video replays for big decisions, or at the least to consult their assistants. This would reduce the pressure a little. Maybe even football will one day see through the weak arguments (in my opinion) against using video replays.

If today’s events lead to wider consultation by referees when making decisions then the misery felt both by Welsh fans and by Alain Rolland will not have been in vain.

BBC cuts a worrying sign for minor sports after London 2012

The BBC announced on 6 October its plans for delivering programming and content through to 2017 in the context of 20% cuts mandated by the government. The sports budget will be reduced by 15%, which could hit some minor sports particularly hard.

Initial plans to cut some services in their entirety met with fierce opposition so the BBC has opted to make reductions across the board, including a previously announced 25% saving in the budget of BBC Online. Among the BBC’s media rivals in the UK, the plans have generally been accepted as sensible (see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post).

In order to save money, the BBC will share the rights to Formula One in 2012 and 2013 with BSkyB. There will also be reductions to some unspecified smaller sports events and to sports coverage on the website.

With the start of the Olympic Games in London now less than 300 days away, the race is on for many of the sports involved to stake a claim to continuing BBC coverage after 2012. As Channel 4 has secured the TV rights to the Paralympic Games, Paralympic sports may believe their best option lies there.

Among Olympic sports, the likes of athletics, swimming and cycling must win medals and demonstrate spectator appeal. Other sports ambitious for British success at London 2012, such as rowing, hockey and gymnastics, will be hoping that the Games can help them produce stars that the BBC want to continue to feature.

While there are plenty of other TV broadcasters in the UK that cover sport – BSkyB, ITV, Channel 4, Eurosport, ESPN, newcomer GBSport.tv and others – the BBC provides a sizeable audience on free to air TV and by far the most popular sports website (12.5m visitors a week, according to the BBC’s own figures). The BBC also has a heritage of covering Olympic sports which other channels rarely feature.

Even with the advantage of marketable British stars, Olympic sports will still need to offer the right kind of events to attract the interest of broadcasters, which is not straightforward (competition should ideally be live, conveniently packaged for TV, avoiding clashes with other events).

And then there are the issues of rights fees and production costs to consider. Only the most popular sports and events can successfully sell their rights to the highest bidder. In many cases federations or event organisers will have to pay for TV production and offer the feed to broadcasters. With advances in technology it should be possible to produce footage more cheaply than before, increasing the chance that an event will be screened on TV, even if it is not on one of the most popular channels.

It is clear that very few of the Olympic sports can be confident of TV coverage on the most popular channels in the UK after London 2012. The best way to guarantee interest will be to have high profile British stars. The pressure is on.

The impact of Kindle Fire on sports broadcasting

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet device could have a significant impact on sports broadcasting, speeding up the trend towards live streaming of major sports events being available alongside regular TV coverage.

Initially the Kindle Fire will only be available in the US. Judging from the publicity material, it is anticipated that users will primarily want to consume books, magazines, films, TV and music, all of which are on sale through Amazon. Nevertheless, there is great potential for the new device to impact on sports broadcasting around the world because of its price (at $199 it is much cheaper than the iPad and several other rivals) and the strength of Amazon’s brand.

According to news reports, the iPad currently has over 60% of the global market share for table devices and around 80% in North America. Total sales so far worldwide run into tens of millions, which is a small figure compared to the global TV audience.

If Amazon’s cut price competitor can help the market for tablets to grow considerably over the next couple of years the potential audience of sports fans who own tablets will become an appealing target.

Many TV broadcasters already offer live streaming of their programming as well as the TV signal (such as Eurosport and Sky ). This is useful for people who may watch on a laptop at home and also for office workers but the online audience is a small fraction of those who watch on TV. As tablets come within the reach of far more people, this audience could grow dramatically – the bigger screen is much better for watching video footage than a mobile phone.

Beyond the established broadcast networks, online-only media channels are now showing interest in sports broadcasting. It was a notable milestone when YouTube secured the rights in January last year to stream Indian Premier League cricket and agreed to share advertising revenue with the rightsholders.

Facebook could be next – Ultimate Fighting Championship has already streamed matches live through Facebook. One day perhaps Amazon’s Prime service will be in a position to bid for the rights to stream major sports events.

Even if, as seems likely, the traditional broadcasters around the world continue to dominate sports TV rights for some time, the portion of the audience who watch live streaming of sport rather than TV broadcasts looks set to grow.

Sports fans will benefit from more ways of watching their favourite events. It’s also possible to imagine that exclusive hospitality packages to sports events might soon include a Kindle Fire or a similar device so that guests can watch replays and access competition data.

When Amazon started developing their new product the potential impact it would have on sports broadcasting was probably not a major consideration but as it turns out the consequences could be significant.

Rugby World Cup provides lesson in scarcity value

Just over a week into the Rugby World Cup, Ireland beat Australia to provide the first major shock of the tournament. The stakes are particularly high because the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and only takes place every four years.

There are plenty of international rugby matches – arguably too many – but the primacy of the World Cup is clear to all, whether players, governing bodies, sponsors, media or fans. There are some other sports which would benefit from similar clarity.

Rugby fans will recall that Ireland and Australia have had memorable encounters at previous Rugby World Cups. In two of their four matches, Australia won by a single point (1991 and 2003). Australia and Ireland have played each other once a year on average over the last 15 years, including a notable 20-20 draw in 2009, but it is the World Cup games which stick in the memory.

Similarly, today’s Welsh victory over Samoa has added significance because Samoa have twice beaten Wales at previous World Cups, a fact mentioned in most of the match reports (see, for example the Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald). Actually, Wales and Samoa have played five other matches over the years, the details of which I suspect few people can recall.

The addition of Rugby 7s to the Olympic programme in 2016 will provide a challenge to the Rugby World Cup and some of the top players may be tempted to specialise in 7s but ultimately it is sufficiently different from the 15 a side game not to be a direct threat. It will also provide a higher profile platform for the women’s game.

While other sports, ranging from football to cricket, athletics and tennis have a fairly clear hierarchy of tournaments, the competition between the the biggest events in each sport risks devaluing them all. For example, while the four Grand Slam tournaments are the highlight of the tennis calendar, both men’s and women’s tennis have end of season events for the top eight players in the world with big prize money on offer. The Davis Cup and Fed Cup are also in the mix and then there is the Olympic tournament.

Although it is natural for international federations to want to have a full calendar of major events, there is value in recognising and protecting the real highlights. This becomes more difficult when there are different rightsholders for major tournaments (such as FIFA, UEFA, other continental associations and the big national leagues in football).

Protecting the scarcity value of the top events matters for athletes, who risk burnout, and all of the stakeholders including the sponsors and fans who ultimately foot the bills. Greater focus on existing prime properties may be a better strategy for sports to grow than increasing the number of matches and tournaments. After all, sporting history is worth paying for, meaningless international matches are not.

When the Rugby World Cup final arrives on 23 October everybody from players through to fans will know that this is a genuine piece of sporting history.

Formula 1 deal re-opens old debate: free to air v pay TV

Formula One announced on 29 July that the BBC and Sky Sports will share TV broadcast rights in the UK from 2012 to 2018, leading to howls of protest from fans. In a trade-off between revenue and audience reach, Formula One is trying to get the best of both.

The BBC will show half of the races live on TV with the corresponding qualifying and practice sessions. It will also keep highlights and radio rights for all of the races. Sky, meanwhile will show all races, qualifying and practice sessions live.

The key issue for British consumers is that the BBC only charges an annual licence fee per household of £145.50 (frozen for six years from 2010) whereas an annual subscription to Sky Sports will cost an additional £487 with future rises all but certain.

There are several million Sky Sports subscribers in the UK but the potential audience is a fraction of that on the BBC.

For the Formula One rightsholder the additional revenue is highly desirable. The racing teams will earn a share of the increased pie but they also need the largest possible audience to maximise their appeal to sponsors.

According to news reports (see for example the Guardian), they will be seeking clarification on the deal.

Sky has been very successful with its sports broadcasting, driving subscriber numbers through live football rights in particular. Formula One has a large, loyal fan base, many of whom are probably not existing Sky Sports subscribers so it seems a good fit. However, the big question is whether hundreds of thousands of additional customers will now sign up for Sky Sports because they want to watch the full season.

Production costs for broadcasters covering the Formula One season are very high due to the constant travelling and technical demands. Without the advantage of exclusive rights and a captive audience, it could be that either the BBC or Sky Sports find the costs too onerous before the end of the contract in 2018.

For the future health of Formula One it is important that new young fans are constantly being recruited. While Formula One earns revenue from many markets, the UK is one of the largest.

Cricket and other sports have debated in the past the rights and wrongs of accepting the highest bid for TV rights (which tends to come from pay TV stations) or the option which will give the broadest audience (usually from free to air TV stations).

After European Union intervention, rights for the UEFA Champions League in the UK have been shared among different TV stations. The outcome is a certain level of confusion among spectators but they do at least have an opportunity to watch a selection of matches on free to air TV. According to the Independent, European law may prevent national TV rights deals in future.

For the moment Formula One’s deal looks a reasonable compromise but it will take time to see whether it is getting the best of both worlds – huge revenue and a broad audience – or an unsustainable mish-mash.

Fans may be unhappy but Formula One is in a strong position – many other sports would be delighted to face the same dilemma.

Two countries divided by uncommon sports reporting

As newspapers increasingly look for online readers across national borders in their quest for advertising revenue, the challenge of catering to differing tastes in sport increases. The solution will presumably involve covering a wider range of sports and employing columnists from different countries but it’s still early days.

The Economist this week
mentions that the Daily Mail website, Mail Online had over 40m unique visitors in May 2011, up 60% on last year. Much of the increase comes from readers in America. Meanwhile, about one third of over 30m monthly visitors to the Guardian website come from the US.

Both papers are making concerted efforts to attract US readers through new overseas correspondents but the sports sections are still resolutely UK-focused. In common with other UK media, both the Guardian and Daily Mail provide a staple diet of football coverage all year round with seasonal coverage of rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis, horse racing and others. Olympic sports such as athletics and cycling enjoy more prominence than would have been the case a few years ago due to the proximity of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The New York Times is the only newspaper which has more unique visitors to its website than the Mail Online, including many from outside the US, but its sports coverage clearly targets American readers. The top menu in the sports section lists baseball, NFL, college football, NBA, hockey, soccer, golf and tennis. The lead stories about Wimbledon in recent days are naturally about American players rather than the sole British player still in the competition, Andy Murray.

Any sports fan who has watched the global news channels such as CNN, BBC World or Al-Jazeera English will have noticed the inadequacy of their sports reports. In the first place they have to decide which sports to cover, which requires a compromise given the wide range of nationalities among the viewers. The second issue is that the global news channels frequently don’t have the necessary rights to show clips of sports events which would feature in national TV news broadcasts. As a result, the combination of match scores shown on screen and assorted clips satisfies few.

Web users who proactively seek out online newspapers from other countries probably have a particular interest in international news. There is no reason why this should not include sports news but it would require significant investment to provide adequate sports coverage to cater for readers in two or more countries.

International sports specialist news sites probably lead the way in this area. ESPN have both a US and UK version of their website with no apparent overlap in content and Eurosport maintains an impressive range of 15 national sports news websites alongside TV channels in numerous languages.

For the immediate future, newspaper sports reporting looks set to remain nationally focused. It’s a curious fact that while sport itself is inherently universal and global, sports reporting is carefully tailored to national audiences.