The Callum Murray Interview - Peter Hutton
Peter Hutton, CEO of Eurosport, commissioner of Eric Cantona's 'Commissioner of Football' rants, Hillsborough veteran, Asian sports market expert, Derby County nut and all-round 'great guy' talks to Sportcal Insight. Author
20th October 2017, 10:22

No one has a bad word to say about Peter Hutton. He’s someone who has time for everyone - even journalists (he used to be one himself, so he sympathises). “Good luck with Peter,” says one ex-colleague when he hears I’m due to interview Hutton. “Great guy.”

Hutton’s been everywhere in sports media, done everything: Europe and Asia; agencies and broadcasters; buying and selling; producing and directing; reporting and presenting. Now chief executive of Eurosport, he describes himself in his lengthy LinkedIn biography as: “Englishman, working for Americans, living in France, thanks to years in Asia.”

Those Americans are, of course, his employers at Discovery, which invested in Eurosport in 2012, and took full control in 2015, totally transforming the broadcaster and the way it is viewed around the world.

For years Eurosport suffered from a - let’s say - uneven reputation. In the UK, Hutton’s home market, it was regularly derided as the home of sporting ‘filler’ (tractor-pulling and the like). This wasn’t the case in some other territories, where domestic rights it picked up, and its access to the top sporting events of the European Broadcasting Union, were recognised and valued. But the fact remained that, in at least some crucial markets, it was close to a laughing stock.

Not any more. Now, thanks to Discovery’s muscle, it’s got the Olympics in every European territory except Russia from 2018 to 2024, at a cost of €1.3 billion ($1.5 billion); it’s got a package of live German Bundesliga rights, in Germany, costing €85 million a season; it's got Swedish soccer's top-tier Allsvenskan, in an exclusive deal reported to be worth SKr540 million ($61.5 million) per season. Serious rights, serious money - and the number of average viewers across Eurosport’s linear channels is up 28 per cent for the year until the end of August.

A recent coup for Eurosport: the rights to Sweden's Allsvenskan
 

And there’s the promise of more. David Zaslav, Discovery’s president and chief executive has vowed to spend $5 billion on sports rights over the decade.

Still, what did Hutton think when Eurosport - now, as then, headquartered in Paris - came calling? At the time, he was co-chief executive of the UK-based MP & Silva, the international sports agency, but, he says, “I still believe that I’m a journalist at heart. Working at an agency like MP & Silva was a huge learning experience, but I knew I wanted to come back and work for a broadcaster. In my dreams nothing suited me better than Eurosport. When I got the call, I was amazed. When I was 21, 22 I was commentating for Eurosport. It was quite a big deal for me. I had grown up as a fan of European football at a point when there was none on UK TV, so there was a big emotional connection.

“It was clearly a massive opportunity. Discovery had not come in to keep the business as it was. I really got a sense of this as a massive project for Discovery. It was too big a chance to drop down, even though” - and here he grins - “it meant losing my Derby County season ticket.”

But what about that reputation as a bit of a laughing stock? Hutton doesn’t deny it, saying: “Yeah, coming from the UK the perception was more negative than in other parts of Europe. Viewing was always strong in Poland, France, Russia, where it was a stronger brand than in others [countries], but still one with a great tradition, a rich platform to build on.”


Clearly, we’re still not that good at blowing our own trumpet if we’ve changed but the old negativity is still there

 

Recently, Hutton says, he listened to an external presentation about “what’s wrong with Eurosport” from consultants “pitching to say what Eurosport should change,” and what they identified was precisely the things Eurosport believes it has already changed. “Clearly,” Hutton adds, “we’re still not that good at blowing our own trumpet if we’ve changed but the old negativity is still there.”

So what weaknesses did they identify, I ask? “The first thing was that it’s not locally relevant enough: you don’t get a sense of a British broadcaster in the UK or a German one in Germany,” Hutton says. But, he argues, “we’ve made big strides, especially around big events. We still have a long way to go: battling history means it will take a long time to change people’s beliefs. It’s like being the manufacturer of Skoda - even with the best design possible, people still think it’s a Skoda.”

At this point, Hutton pulls himself up short, suggesting substituting ‘Trabant’ for ‘Skoda’ - and I realise he thinks maybe he’s been a little indiscreet with his reference to Skoda, a major sponsor of the Tour de France, one of Eurosport’s top properties, which it will show exclusively in 38 countries across the continent under its next contract that comes into effect in 2020.

But, actually, I think it’s a very good parallel. Twenty years ago, Skoda, too, was a laughing stock, the butt of jokes like: “How do you double the value of a Skoda? Fill up the petrol tank,” and “Why do Skodas have heated rear windscreens? To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing them.” You don’t hear those jokes any more, since the brand was transformed by Volkswagen, which acquired it in 2000. Eurosport: the Skoda of sports broadcasting.

So, what is Hutton most proud of since his arrival at Eurosport? Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t cite one of the big rights acquisitions the broadcaster has made in the period but instead the series of short, ironic ‘Commissioner of Football’ films Eurosport has made, featuring Eric Cantona (open-shirted, for some reason) making sweeping pronouncements about the game in his absurdly exaggerated French accent.

Eric Cantona makes pronouncements about the game in the Commissioner of Football series
 

This “short- form viral video content” has attracted over 30 million views, with more than 100 million people reached, according to Eurosport stats. “Short form is one of the biggest ways of changing perception,” Hutton says. “It touches a completely new audience and is genuinely entertaining and informative, and adds value. We’ve put a big priority on how do you push out on social media to change Eurosport? Cantona talking to the camera with his shirt off about relevant football stories has attracted a huge amount of press and a lot of comment because it’s controversial, edgy.

“It was launched around the Euros [Euro 2016, the European Championships] and was a really nice way as a non-rights-holder of gaining a credible voice. It’s making something Eurosport would never have done [previously]. We tended to use a commentator or expert who was available 200 days a year. To say, ‘put money behind Cantona…’ It’s all about changing the brand and associating it with the top end of sport.”

If you haven’t seen one of Cantona’s Commissioner of Football rants, they somewhat defy description, but a good example might be his preview of the Euro 2016 final between Portugal and France, in which he says of goal-shy Portugal, with appropriately extreme gestures: “Portugal is like a bottle of ketchup: nothing for 90 minutes and… it comes all at once!”

Eurosport used to be known for the pan-European rights to which it had access as a member of the EBU, and for other second-tier, often still pan-European, rights it picked up along the way. How does Hutton characterise its rights-buying strategy since the arrival of Discovery? Is its approach now predominantly a territory-by-territory one? “No, not entirely,” Hutton says. “We want to be seen as the ‘home’ of certain things: grand slam tennis; cycling; Norwegian and Swedish football; Moto GP…”


We’re a lot less ‘democratic’ about what we promote and put our money behind. We’re focused on big stories and events

 

There are “three ways” in which Eurosport acquires rights now – pan-European, multiple markets and single markets – and “each has a separate business case,” Hutton says, adding: “We’re a lot less ‘democratic’ about what we promote and put our money behind. We’re focused on big stories and events.” Bad news for tractor-pulling rights-holders everywhere.

But, conversely, do the holders of rights to those big stories and events now rub their hands together in anticipation of a Discovery-financed windfall when they see Eurosport coming? “We know we get used a lot by sellers as a big threat to local buyers - which is amusing when we know the local buyers quite well,” Hutton says. “One of the values of an experienced rights-buying team for us is we always have a walk-away price. We’re proud to be seen as profitable.”

What is an example of a deal Eurosport has walked away from, I ask? “The Bundesliga,” Hutton replies, without hesitation. “We walked away in multiple parts of Europe: most of eastern Europe and Scandinavia. When you challenged the business case, it didn’t make sense. People talk a lot of how much we’ve bought but we’ve dropped a lot of content. Magazine shows with WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment], for example, which didn’t add much to the channel.”

Asked which rights and sports Eurosport is targeting in future, Hutton answers carefully: “We’re clearly in transition. We inherited a lot of rights deals that are now coming to end, especially non-exclusive athletics, swimming and winter sports. There are difficult choices to make: we want to be more and more exclusive. The strategy is a transitioning from the buffet-type, bit-of-everything history of Eurosport to a far more clear identity of who are and what we show.”

The emphasis on exclusivity is interesting, given an apparently industry-wide move towards using a range of delivery mechanisms to distribute top sports events. However, exclusivity remains “really important,” to Eurosport, Hutton insists, adding: “We have all the other platforms - social media, free and pay sports channels. But it’s important, given our history, that we become known as the place to watch certain sports. Cycling is a really good example. If you look at the volume of races, we buy a lot of races that were not traditionally televised, which allows us to have a day-to-day relationship with cycling fans.”

Tour de France sponsor Skoda: like Eurosport, no longer a laughing stock
 

Likewise, Hutton cites Discovery’s investment in Global Cycling Network, the UK-based YouTube channel which claims to engage with over 7 million cycling fans a month, and which gives Eurosport access to these fans, “every day of the year, not just when a big event is on,” according to Hutton.

So, what are those certain sports that Eurosport wants to be known as the place to watch? Hutton lists tennis (Eurosport holds rights to broadcast all four ‘Grand Slams’ - including Wimbledon in the UK - and has extended its exclusivity by broadcasting qualifying matches which were not previously seen on TV), cycling (all three of the sport’s ‘Grand Tours’), soccer (in Norway, Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Germany, in particular) and the Olympics.

“Our Olympic challenge is interesting from a production point of view,” says Hutton. “We’ve had a successful run of sub-licensing, but we have to create an identity for our own coverage.” In many European countries, Eurosport is partnering with a free-to-air broadcaster to cover the games (for instance, in Germany, public-service broadcasters ARD and ZDF finally signed off on a €250-million deal in August to share coverage of the next four editions of the games with Eurosport, albeit certain events will be held back for exclusive coverage on Eurosport’s platforms).


With augmented reality, more data on screen allows us to claim a technological advantage

 

“PyeongChang has been the main subject [of discussion] for my entire time here,” Hutton continues. One way in which Eurosport hopes to distinguish its coverage, he explains, is through its use of augmented reality, following the lead it has created with its coverage of tennis’ Grand Slams. “With augmented reality, more data on screen allows us to claim a technological advantage,” Hutton continues. “We’re experts in terms of explaining sport. We try to create a special identity to set us apart from free-to-air broadcasters.”

In the case of tennis, this can involve, for example, a presenter ‘walking around’ an augmented-reality version of a player to explain how the player positions him- or herself. “It’s a nice way of visually telling a unique story,” Hutton says (he’s never lost his enthusiasm for on-screen innovation despite his many years in the business). “It’s genuinely taking a lead. We can’t really claim ownership but we’re prepared to invest more and more to tell a better story that gets people to care and to understand what players are going through.”

As for Olympics rights sales in Europe, in most territories deals have now been concluded for 2018 and 2020 (there are still a few outstanding deals to be announced for PyeongChang 2018, notably Italy, one of the continent’s top winter sports countries, but it looks like an announcement is imminent for that territory). Eurosport is now seeking deals for 2022 and 2024, aided considerably by the recent decision by the IOC to award the 2024 games to Paris. Eurosport aims to package those rights with the 2022 winter games in Beijing, with Hutton saying: “Some [broadcasters] care more about winter and some about summer, so it makes sense to sell them together."

The decision to award the 2024 games to Paris, Eurosport’s home city, was “brilliant for us,” Hutton adds. The Olympics deal “already made sense for us, regardless of venues, but Paris, of all places, is the dream. It means that so much top-level sport will come to Paris in between.”

Hutton’s been around the business so long it’s hard to believe he’s still only 51, with two young sons, aged nine and 14 who are attending an English school in Paris. He was born in Solihull in the English Midlands in 1966, but grew up in Matlock in Derbyshire, “when Derby County were the best team in England,” and he has never lost his fan’s excitement for soccer and sport generally which, he says, he inherited from his dad, Tony, “a complete sports obsessive”.

Hutton (r) as a young reporter: 'I only ever wanted to do one thing'
 

He was six when Derby won the old English first division title under legendary manager Brian Clough and the other “key element” of his childhood, he says, was Matlock Town winning the FA Trophy (the top English cup competition for non-league sides) in 1975. “I started commentating on hospital radio aged 15, and on local radio aged 16, and I’ve never had a proper job since,” he jokes. “I was writing match reports from the age of 10 or 11, and I only ever wanted to do one thing. My dad was a big factor. Growing up, we probably watched a couple of hundred days of sport a year. He sold life insurance, and, for some reason, a lot of his meetings seemed to revolve around the location of county cricket matches. It was part of normal life from a really early age.”

To his own (and, he says, other people’s) amazement, he won a place at Cambridge University to study English, continuing to report on soccer matches for local radio during his three years there, as he studied for his degree. The degree itself hasn’t been much help to him in his career (his dissertation was on “King Herod in medieval drama,” he points out), but his background in journalism has been crucial. The happiest moment in his career, he says, was when he was appointed sports editor at Radio Aire in Leeds at the age of 21. “I got the job five months before graduation, so I was commuting to Cambridge and just managed to scrape through my finals. It was all about whether you were any good. It was amazing they gave a 21-year-old who loved radio that opportunity.”

Later, Hutton was a local radio and TV reporter and a witness to two of English soccer’s great tragedies, the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium, which killed 56 fans in 1985, and the even more notorious Hillsborough disaster, in which mismanagement of the crowd at an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield four years later in 1989 led to 96 fans being crushed to death.

When the Hillsborough game was called off, he and his crew were the first reporters on the pitch, and naturally switched into professional mode. “It was an amazing, memorable day, filming and driving tapes back and forward,” he says. “It was traumatic, but in a strange way what happened at the Bradford fire was definitely preparation for it. I had to drive from Hillsborough to Leeds for the bulletin [he was working for BBC Leeds at the time], and driving the car was the point at which it really started affecting me. Both Valley Parade and Hillsborough I knew well as a fan. It meant the inquiry was really poignant; there were so many moments when you’d been in that place. At Valley Parade, what got me was the debris swept under the stand [the cause of the fire], that I’d sat in so many times.”

At the subsequent Hillsborough inquiry he had the job of interviewing fans, because he was “still in his 20s and slightly scruffier than the others. We gathered a lot of interview material. It doesn’t leave you. When I was at MP & Silva, I was interviewed by the police on what happened to the tapes [there were longstanding allegations, finally confirmed as recently as last year, of a major police cover-up of their negligence and misconduct].”

He was also a witness at the Valley Parade inquiry and saw the “guy who had swept stuff under the stands for years” being interviewed, as it “dawned on him what he’d done.” Likewise, he heard evidence from the policeman who had radioed to warn his superiors of a dangerous crush at one of the gates at Hillsborough, but who was told not to open it. “I couldn’t watch the documentary,” Hutton says, referring to the definitive, two-hour TV film on the tragedy co-produced by the BBC and ESPN in 2014, but not finally aired in the UK until 2016 because the inquest was still in progress.

After those formative experiences, Hutton went on to work for a line-up of many of the world’s top broadcasters and media companies, including, in the UK, Sky and TWI (the former media arm of IMG). Then came his move to Asia to work for the Dubai-based Taj Television, owner of Ten Sports (which was subsequently acquired by Zee TV, then Sony), followed by Fox International Channels and ESPN Star Sports, before finally returning to London and MP & Silva.


Any major media company has got to be focused on India and China, so it’s a huge advantage to have worked in both

 

Does having worked in Asia for the best part of 20 years give him a different perspective on the business from his colleagues? “When I went out to work in Asia [he worked in both India and China for TWI before joining Taj in 2002], a lot people saw it as almost a step back. ‘Why would you give up the UK to work in Asia?’ Now they would jump at it. This is where the growth is. Any major media company has got to be focused on India and China, so it’s a huge advantage to have worked in both.”

What does he make of the recent downturn in the fortunes of MP & Silva, epitomised by its loss of a long-term staple of its rights portfolio, the international rights for Serie A, to another of his previous employers, IMG? “The big change in the agency market is the growth of IMG, and its willingness to put down big guarantees, which is not in the tradition of IMG,” he replies. “It used to be very much about commission and, ‘trust me, we’ll get a good deal’. Now it’s changed the rules. Representation deals are by their nature precarious, and that’s the learning you get from seeing how IMG has been treated since WME came in [IMG was acquired by Hollywood talent agency WME in 2015]. There’s far more ownership, so it’s a less precarious business.”

Hutton remains friendly with Andrea Radrizzani, a fellow soccer nut who was MP & Silva’s co-founder, together with Riccardo Silva, and is grateful to him for giving him the “the opportunity to work in London and be at the heart of this worldwide business and amazing story.” He dismisses the notion of Eleven Sports, the international pay-TV broadcaster set up by Radrizzani in 2015, as a potential competitor to Eurosport, saying: “Eleven follow an a la carte sales model, while we’re part of a much wider organisation so the business models are very different. I wouldn’t describe it as a rival; Andrea is still a close friend.”

Sports media and broadcasting is still a people business - and Hutton knows and is friendly with practically everyone.

What is his ultimate ambition for Eurosport, I ask? But Hutton, not one for grandiose mission statements, replies: “That’s way too difficult. Andrea went into Leeds [Radrizzani became owner of the second-tier English Championship side Leeds United this year], and said: ‘I’m just a temporary custodian; I want to make sure to leave it in a better state than when I came in.”

Similarly, he declines to make any “grand statements” on the purpose of sport, saying only: “It’s about enjoying yourself and enjoying yourself with others. I still play football every Monday night, and it’s one of the best moments of the week: 20-odd blokes I know nothing about – only their names or nicknames.”

Hutton with his two young sons and father Tony, a 'big factor' in his love for sport
 

I ask him if he’s one of those soccer fans who looks out for the results of his club every Saturday, regardless of where he is in the world. “I’m way worse than that,” he replies. “I watch all of the live streams, and I go back at least once a month [to watch Derby County play]; myself and the boys. I’m more obsessed than ever.”

Has he considered emulating Radrizzani and investing in the club (Hutton had an equity stake in Ten Sports and its sale gave him “a level of financial independence”)? “I have been asked to games in the boardroom, but I’ve gone back to my normal position behind the goal,” he replies. “Football is an escape from work. Besides, I wouldn’t offer much help; I’m far too emotional about it. My investment in the club involves buying an extra pie at half time!”

So, will the Eurosport job take him up to retirement, or will he seek to end his career in his native country, for example? “My career has taken so many unexpected twists,” he says. “I’m not sure I want another job after this one.” Hutton’s wife is Indian and he owns houses in both the UK and India. “I have no idea where I’ll end up geographically,” he says.

Did he make a deliberate decision that his management style would be inclusive and non-confrontational, I wonder - or is that just him? “I’ve had really good managers early on; they all treated me really well, gave me chances and forgave me when I f---ed up. I’ve met so many people who love and know sport and so they end up making the right decisions.”

He scoffs when I ask if he’s ever actually studied management, or read books about it. “It’s a waste of a bookshop if it’s full of management books,” he says. “I genuinely don’t see myself that way. Every job where I could claim to have a management role, I’ve had a group of people around me who are more experienced than me.”

Sportcal