Archive for the ‘TV rights’ Category

“Rain stops play” but should we let it?

The weather forecast for the start of the Wimbledon Championships on Monday 20 June is unsettled. Rain delays seem inevitable, much to the disappointment of spectators and TV viewers. Surely in this day and age something can be done?

Several of the outdoor sports have to suspend play when it rains, including cricket, baseball and tennis on some surfaces. Golf, football, rugby, Formula 1, road cycling, sailing and others are also disrupted by very bad weather.

Although there have been rain delays at sports events in the UK in recent days, such as the cricket Test Match between England and Sri Lanka and horse racing at Royal Ascot, overall significant progress has been made in the last few years.

The Centre Court at Wimbledon has had a retractable roof since 2009 which allows play to continue at least in one court in the event of rain or darkness. Drainage and covers at the leading cricket grounds are now so good that play can resume rapidly even after heavy rain that would have wiped out the rest of the day in years gone by. Meanwhile, horse racing has some all-weather artificial courses, field hockey is played on artificial turf and a handful of venues around the world can house football, rugby or American Football in a wholly enclosed space.

For sponsors and broadcasters, the threat of disruption due to bad weather is an occupational hazard which contrasts with the virtual certainty of indoor sport. You would think that it would be in their interests to focus more on events that are unlikely to be delayed or cancelled. However, sport’s original settings are more often outdoor than indoor and only basketball and ice hockey among leading spectator sports are always held indoors.

So what does the future hold? Research into artificial turf surfaces will no doubt continue with the eventual result that all sports played on grass will have an artificial option which is as good as grass. A few more venues like the Louisiana Superdome will be built to house team sports indoors, although the high cost will prevent more widespread adoption.

I think rain delays will continue to feature in sport because the institutions and fans enjoy belonging to a tradition. Part of the enjoyment of Wimbledon or attending a cricket match on a fine day stems from appreciating the sunshine in the knowledge that winter will arrive one day.

In any case the supporters of summer sports have it easy. Winter sport is the most vulnerable of all to the vagaries of the weather, as any ski fans will testify.

NFL lockout: what about the fans?

Now that negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) franchise owners and the players’ union in the USA have broken down, resulting in a lockout that threatens the 2011 season, only the lawyers seem sure to win.

In a move which is bewildering to outsiders, the players’ union has disbanded, become a trade association and filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against their employers.  Players are asking for more money, a reduction in training days (to reduce the risk of injury) and more compensation in the event of serious injury.  It is effectively an old-fashioned industrial dispute relating to pay and conditions between employees and management.

In common with other industrial disputes, both sides claim the moral high ground. The NFL claims that “the union left a very good deal on the table”. Meanwhile the players accuse the 32 NFL teams of “a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake at the moment but if the 2011 season does not take place the NFL’s $9bn in annual revenue could be lost.

One of the reasons that club owners are willing to risk a cancelled season is because the value of their profitable franchises has been rising year on year. The players stand to lose their season’s wages but they seem prepared to hold out in the hope of a better agreement. The biggest losers would be the fans and the young players who will miss the chance of getting signed. TV broadcasters and the economic activity linked to match days would also be adversely affected.

Considering that about half of the American public watched Super Bowl XLV on 6 February, it is unfortunate that the fans don’t have any direct say in the dispute. ESPN writer Howard Bryant makes the point that the world could carry on without the NFL and “the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else”.

Both sides are willing to gamble that the public will forgive them when the dispute is finally settled. Judging from the evidence of previous lockouts in American sports (including the whole NHL season in 2004-5), fans tend to apportion more blame to players than owners. While the sport involved is damaged, recovery follows fairly quickly afterwards.

It is still possible that the NFL and players will reach a settlement in time for the pre-season preparations to take place. Until that happens it is the lawyers who look best placed to benefit.

Bahrain Grand Prix: what would you do?

Will the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season take place as scheduled or not? The race is planned for 13 March in Bahrain, where there have been violent clashes between protesters and the security forces in recent days, leading to several deaths and many injuries.

While the people of Bahrain may be preoccupied with their wider concerns, the race organisers both internationally and locally face a difficult dilemma just three weeks ahead of the race. There has been extensive media coverage of the story (see for example Reuters and Al-Jazeera English).

There are a number of questions to consider:
- If the race goes ahead, will it be safe for all concerned?
- What is the deadline for making a decision?
- What do the teams and other stakeholders think?
- What are the reputational risks of running the race/cancelling?
- What are the financial implications of going ahead/cancelling?
- If the race goes ahead will everybody participate?
- What kind of precedent is being set?

It will be very hard to know if the right decision has been taken even after the event. The race may pass off without incident but at the cost of reputational damage. Or, if the event is cancelled and the region is peaceful during the competition,  it could still be claimed that the Grand Prix would have provoked trouble.

From time to time team managers and other stakeholders do security assessments ahead of a sports event, as happened before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Although it is entirely responsible to listen to different points of view and survey the evidence, predictions are inherently unreliable – nobody knows what will happen in Bahrain. Whatever procedure is put in place for assessing risk, ultimately the decision will depend on the personal opinion of a small group of people.

When a significant perceived threat emerges in the lead up to a sports event there is a familiar pattern:
- The host country and organisers seek to reassure people
- The governing body or rights-holder will be supportive in public but frantically looking for an alternative in private
- Sponsors and TV broadcasters will wait to see which way the wind blows
- Athletes will look to their management for guidance and then make a decision based on their gut instinct
- Spectators will stay away if in any doubt
- The event will usually go ahead with less disruption than feared

In the specific case of the Bahrain Grand Prix the consequences of cancellation or postponement would be significant but not on a scale that would overwhelm Formula 1 as it begins a long season. In the context of a severe political crisis, an initial postponement seems likely.

What is the right decision? We will never know.

Multiple screen media opportunity for sport

The fact that British consumers squeeze nine hours of media use into seven hours each day demonstrates a clear opportunity for the sports industry.

A report published by UK communications industry regulator OFCOM has highlighted the fact that the British population, especially 18 to 24 year-olds, spend two or more hours each day multi-tasking with different media and communications devices. This is particularly due to the rise of smart phones and the mobile internet.

While TV and radio remain popular, watching and listening are often combined with internet surfing. Reality shows with live voting are credited for increasing the popularity of media multi-tasking but sport also plays a significant role. Although the data comes from a UK survey, it’s likely that the pattern is replicated in many countries.

Arguably, South Africa 2010 was the first dual-screen World Cup, where spectators watched matches on TV (or live streaming) while simultaneously chatting with friends, checking statistics and commenting on Twitter. The Guardian tracked Twitter coverage of every match.

Broadcasters face a challenge to keep their audience’s attention during sports events and may need to use Facebook and other tools to do so. If they succeed, there are further opportunities for sponsors and rights-holders to reach consumers.

However, the opportunity is probably bigger for media other than broadcasters who for the first time can claim a significant audience share during live events. Activity such as live text commentary, which CricInfo and others have done well for a number of years, was previously a “second best” option for fans unable to watch live on TV. Now various extra value online services are complementary to live broadcasts.

Newspapers, online gambling and fan sites are well-placed to benefit, if they can get their offerings right. As I mentioned in a previous post, there may be new attempts to establish paid-for sports content or sports news operations may merge to create scale. Services could target TV viewers, spectators at venues, office workers and various other audience segments.

ESPN has taken the plunge and launched a paid-for iPhone App showing Premier League goals soon after they are scored. Major League Baseball provides a comprehensive video, audio and stats service for iPad users. Others are sure to follow.

Meanwhile the demand remains for match reports and highlights after the event (preferably available online at any time). However, the bigger opportunity is to find ways to reach the multi-tasking audience during live events.

Apple iPad and the impact on sports media

The launch of the much anticipated Apple iPad could have great significance for the future of the sports media but it remains to be seen how fast and fundamental the impacts will be.

Apple intends the device, which has received generally favourable reviews, to create a third category of mobile device between a laptop and a smart phone, moving beyond the e-book readers available from Amazon, Sony and others. While the potential benefits for some are apparent - think easy access to news and e-mail for train commuters - it is inevitably a gamble to try to create a new niche.

If the iPad and similar devices become popular, here are some potential impacts on sports media in the UK and beyond:

1) Major boost for live streaming and online video highlights of sports events. Both have been around for some years but most people prefer to watch on TV if they can. The iPad could change that.

2) Increased audiences for independently produced sports footage. Rightsholders already sometimes offer video footage of sports events to newspaper websites, particularly when mainstream broadcasters have declined to cover them. If audiences for online sports videos increase, it could be good news for minority sports because the cost of embedding existing video in online media is low. However, increased choice for consumers also means increased competition for eyeballs.  

3) Increased emphasis on live coverage (including text updates and still images) and previews rather than long post-match reviews. The change could come about because more people will be able to follow events as they happen and readers/viewers may have less interest in reviews published hours later.

4) Enhanced use of statistical analysis. Data such as that provided by CricInfo could be displayed in a more dynamic way alongside video than is currently practical with TV and print media. This could be particularly significant for the sports betting industry.

5) Merging of sports news operations. If newspaper sales continue to dwindle and more people access news online it may be practical for news providers to merge their online sports sections, even if they maintain separate identities for news and comment. All news providers and advertisers will be watching with interest to see how many paying subscribers The Times in the UK attracts when it restricts access later this year and how its content evolves. 

6) Launch of new, paid-for online sports magazines. They have been tried before and have generally struggled but if consumers start paying for online news in large numbers there are sure to be new attempts to create a specialist service. One possible strategy would be to set different levels of subscription depending on which sports or competitions are covered, which is much easier online than in print or broadcast.

In summary, the transition from print, TV and radio coverage of sport to multi-media online coverage has been happening for years and will continue. The arrival of Apple’s iPad and its rivals could speed up that transition but the outcome is far from certain and there are likely to be casualties along the way.

Now, the important question: when can I get one?

Enduring appeal of BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Veteran footballer Ryan Giggs was elected the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year this evening. As the winner is chosen by a public vote, the competition provides a useful barometer of public interest in different sports over the years.

A fixture in the December BBC TV schedules since 1954, the show has often been controversial among  fans who argue about the relative merits of their favourite sports. A cartoon in today’s Sunday Times cheekily suggested that Barack Obama might win – a reference to his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Historically winners have most often come from individual sports, especially athletics, Formula One and boxing, so Ryan Giggs has bucked the trend. Athletes from the team sports football, cricket and rugby union have generally only won in years when there have been major championships.

The visibility of each sport on television is of course a significant factor. Apart from athletics, individuals from other Olympic sports fare best in an Olympic year. To the BBC’s credit, a number of winners have been elected despite taking part in events broadcast on rival channels, including cricketer Andrew Flintoff in 2005 and boxer Joe Calzaghe in 2007. 

It’s difficult to detect many obvious changes in the profile of the winners in recent years, despite the dramatic changes in the sporting world. If anything, the results suggest fairly stable levels of support for athletics, Formula One, boxing, football, cricket, tennis, golf, swimming, cycling and others. There are signs of decline in snooker, which regularly provided contenders for the title in the 1980s and does so no longer. In the 1970s and ’80s outstanding British figure skaters won the award three times but winter sport athletes have scarcely featured since.

Multiple Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson was voted into third place in 2000, which marked a breakthrough for disability sport. It’s possible that athletes from Olympic sports will benefit from a higher profile in the years leading up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

This year the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show clashed with the final of talent show X Factor on ITV, no doubt leading to arguments over the remote control in numerous households across the country. It remains to be seen how much the viewing figures were affected by the scheduling.

The winners always seem very genuine in their appreciation when they make their acceptance speech. As Ryan Giggs acknowledged, they can all remember watching their idols collecting the same trophy when they were growing up. Eventually it may be threatened by the fragmentation of TV and online audiences but for now the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show remains a reassuring institution in the calendar for British sports fans – long may it continue.

The opportunity of international name recognition

While visiting Argentina it is noticeable that many of the sporting stars who appear daily in the national media are very familiar to a British sports fan. This instant name recognition brings an opportunity which may not be fully recognised.

In the 21 October issue of Olé, the popular national sports newspaper, there were stories about Barcelona icon Lionel Messi, the Argentinian rugby team preparing for their forthcoming tour of the UK, rising tennis star Juan Martín del Potro and numerous pages previewing the weekend’s local derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate.

The focus for sponsors and rights-holders is often the country where a sporting competition is taking place but the media coverage can spread much further, depending on the nationalities of the participants. This has long been appreciated in Formula 1, where the nationality of drivers is a significant factor when teams decide who to hire. Football and basketball clubs are also well aware that a star name from overseas can help the fan base to grow in a new market - consider Beckham at LA Galaxy or Park Ji-Sung at Mancheter United.

However, the potential is much greater. It is perfectly plausible for a sponsor or rights-holder to create an event featuring hand-picked athletes or teams from specific markets. More often it seems to happen the other way around: the fact that a particular athlete or team is involved suddenly makes an event more attractive for a potential sponsor. Purists will understandably be concerned that qualification might be determined by a sponsor’s needs rather than on merit. Clearly there needs to be a balance between open and invitation-only competitions because fans will readily ignore meaningless contests.

At a time when many sporting bodies are under economic pressure, sponsors can be a little bolder in their negotiations. Even if they don’t go as far as creating their own event they may be able to influence  qualification criteria to increase the chances of key athletes or teams participating. 

For governing bodies and other rights-holders, uneasy at the prospect of having sponsors closely involved in their events, it is more important than ever to increase the depth and range of potential winners. If they succeed they will have a much stronger proposition to offer international brands. Unfortunately it’s easier said than done.

Football, rugby, tennis, basketball, volleyball and golf are therefore fortunate that the strength of Argentina’s athletes assures interest in their national media. However that doesn’t stop the Brazilians poking fun at their rivals’ struggle to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.

Sport selling out? Free-to-air V subscription TV

The much publicised financial troubles of satellite broadcaster Setanta in recent days have highlighted the increasingly complex media landscape facing sports rights-holders when they try to sell their most valuable assets.

Setanta owns rights to show a number of popular sports properties in the UK and Ireland including a package of live Premier League matches, the Scottish Premier League and the Indian Premier League (cricket). According to the BBC and others, Setanta is trying to renegotiate payment schedules due to cash-flow difficulties. It is clearly not in the interests of rights-holders to see their broadcaster go bankrupt but equally they are anxious to protect revenue they thought was guaranteed.

Subscription channels such as Sky Sports in the UK, Canal+ in France, ESPN in the USA and Eurosport have been competing with free-to-air broadcasters for TV sports rights for the last 20 years or more. Sky Sports claimed a major coup when they first bought the English Premier League rights for the 1992/3 season, with the result that football fans in England had to pay an extra subscription to watch live league matches.

Since that time rights-holders for the most popular sports properties in the UK and elsewhere have faced a dilemma. Very often subscription channels have bid more than free-to-air stations for exclusive rights because live sport is a proven business driver. However, the audience they attract is almost inevitably smaller than the free-to-air channels. The smaller audience may have a negative impact on sponsorship sales and it reduces the visibility of the sport.  

The basic criteria for choosing which broadcaster to sell the rights to are:
- who can offer the most money?
- who can offer the best coverage?
- what are the potential TV ratings? What will be the impact on sponsors and interest in the sport/event?
- how certain is it that the broadcaster will be able to pay?

In the UK, football, rugby union, rugby league, cricket, boxing and other sports have all grappled with this decision at one time or another. There has been significant debate about whether selling rights exclusively to subscription channels damages a sport (see the Daily Telegraph on English cricket, whose live rights are all currently held by Sky).
The success of Sky Sports in particular led to new legislation in 1996 designating certain sports events such as the FIFA World Cup, Olympic Games and Wimbledon Championships as “listed events”, which have to be offered first to free-to-air broadcasters. For “B” category events there must at least be an opportunity for free-to-air channels to show highlights. The UK list is currently under review and, following a European Union directive, similar lists now exist in numerous European countries. Naturally, rights-holders would like to have a full range of broadcasters to choose from but it is no longer a simple decision to opt for the highest bid. Mobile and internet rights further complicate the issue.

The new trend is for seasons, events and tournaments to be divided into chunks for sale to different broadcasters. This approach has the advantage for rights-holders that some of their most popular assets are available on free-to-air channels but the disadvantage that rights are not sold exclusively, perhaps resulting in lower fees. 

Setanta’s future seems to be in the balance. Expect to see rights-holders reduce the risks by packaging their sports assets for sale to multiple broadcasters. Expect also to spend 10 minutes with the remote control, frantically trying to work out which channel is broadcasting tonight’s match…