Competition for the middle of the pitch is heating up

The distribution choices for sports rights owners has, traditionally, been quite limited. Even just a few years ago, the choice for distribution of sports content lay between free to air broadcasters or pay-TV (dominated by Sky Sports). Now, rights owners are spoilt for choice when it comes to distribution channels as players across the digital ecosystem throw their hat into the ring. The choice of linear broadcasters have increased and mobile operators are becoming a viable alternative for distribution. Rights owners can go direct, or look at the disruption from new channels.

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When it comes to sport, there have been major moves in the broadcast TV market in recent years. Free-to-air channels are battling to keep rights away from the deep pockets of pay-TV – expect to see more examples like the recent six-year deal between the BBC and ITV to share the 6 Nations. Sky now have a serious competitor in BT Sport and Discovery are also looking to muscle their way to the top table, bidding nearly £1bn for the Olympics. This is great news for larger sports federations: more competition means more money. For smaller federations who are largely excluded from (prime-time) pay-tv and only receive small free-to-air exposure, this presents an interesting opportunity. Take the BBC as an example; their ever-increasing budgetary constraints is leading a shift in the way that sports rights are acquired, and there is a real argument for the BBC to acquire more niche rights and grow a sport into a major national icon. The BBC secured the rights to the inaugural SheBelieves Cup, an invitational women’s football tournament starting this week. It would also be great to see them showcase the new women’s cricket Super League; the success of the Big Bash League in Australia shows what an exciting format on free-to-air television can do to enthuse participation and grow a sport. We’ve seen some real surprises too: UKTV showed the David Haye comeback fight against Mark de Mori in January 2016. ‘Content is King’ is a good catch-phrase for sports associations to bear in mind as the broadcast market competes for a declining viewership.

Mobile operators are also becoming a viable option for distribution as they look to jump on the sports bandwagon to differentiate their offering. Verizon recently launched video platform service Go90 – partners of this service includes the NFL. As connectivity becomes increasingly commoditised (Verizon even offer free data usage on their Go90 service) MNOs could become increasingly important players in distribution. The rapid global expansion of mobile broadband penetration places MNOs at the centre of a very valuable proposition, but the key question is how they can stave off becoming commoditised. The pitch that federations can give to MNOs is an opportunity to retain relevance in the battle against players in the application layer.

The other interesting option increasingly available to smaller federations is the ability to go direct. In February alone, Rugby Europe, the International Pentathlon Union and the NBA have all announced launches (or extensions) on digital platforms. This provides a great opportunity for lower tier sports to increase their visibility. Converting new viewers into engaged ambassadors is a key target. Take rugby as an example: The World Cup, the Six Nations and an Olympic year that includes Rugby 7s have been lined up back-to-back. It’s difficult to argue for a better platform on which to deliver a direct-to-consumer proposition.

As mobile increasingly enables everything (, the most disruptive distribution channels are digital specialists and the tech giants (Facebook, Apple, Google etc.).

A number of rights owners have partnered with real time video technology company Grabyo to instantly snip live clips from television, wrap it in sponsorship, and share through social channels. At Wimbledon, a single shot by Roger Federer accumulated 4m views in 24 hours. For federations, they can boost engagement with time-strapped, mobile-first millennials, as well as a potential for generating new income streams. I’d bet that advertisers are willing to be pay big money, to be associated with a ridiculous shot such as Federer’s (

The omnipresent tech giants (Facebook, Apple, Google etc.) are also looking to impose their dominance on the sports market through partnerships. There are rumours that both Google and Apple are in talks with the NFL to buy the streaming rights to the international series games held in London. As specialists in collecting and using personal data, a Google-led or Apple-led sports proposition would present a fantastic customer experience and surely promote engagement with the sport – the challenge for the sports federation is that they need to demonstrate broad appeal to attract these global players. As we know from Google’s forays into original content via YouTube, sometimes it’s not as simple as sticking a ‘like’ button on it. I struggle to see how Google and Facebook could go beyond their current role to support major prime-time distribution. However, if there is any content that will pull people away from the tried-and-tested means of watching sports to a new medium or format, it is major competitions such as the NFL. It’s small wonder that Apple and Google find them attractive.

The proliferation of distribution options is great news for federations. Rights values increase as a result of more competition and smaller sports can increase their visibility with mobile-first consumers. For everyone else, maybe, just maybe, this hybrid model of live broadcast and near-live short-form clips can reverse the systemic decline in participation during the “pay-TV only years” and encourage kids to go out and try a Pietersen switch-hit or Neymar rabona.

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