The simple fact is this: in a world of internet and LTE / 4G / 5G connectivity, all parties face fragmentation and disruption and, finally, sports broadcasters have decided to pursue OTT direct-to-consumer sports services as their priority
Simon Brydon
Simon Brydon is a sports media consultant and sports OTT pioneer; a natural ‘disrupter’ in a disruptive media world. He conducts international TV / OTT sales in complicated markets and was formerly CEO of Cycling TV and Racing UK / RMG.
The real revolution is here
27th October 2017, 09:19

In 2002, I set up a business with a simple ambition. The company was called Cycling Television and it would deliver professional cycling to a global audience of cycling fans.

The rationale was straightforward: the sport of cycling had a large global fan base that was not served by traditional linear TV broadcasters. In great swathes of the world some of the greatest sports events produced for TV distribution were not broadcast at all. In USA only the Tour de France was broadcast live every day.

In short, the broadcast media model did not work for fans or rights-owners.

The business was hardly radical. We’d behave exactly like a traditional broadcaster: fully live plus highlights, no compromise on live output because this was the internet and a subscription- and ad-funded model, so premium and free content.

I remember my first Sportel. Certain broadcast professionals (no doubt now experts at digital sport) laughed at the idea. They could laugh at me, that would be understandable, but to laugh at what seemed the most obvious thing in the world, even in 2003? All media content would one day be delivered over this thing called the internet and therefore TV, as the industry then understood it, was dead. If only someone could sort out mobile… oh, thank you Apple, so that’s now mobile sorted too.

So that was the principle and, overall, we delivered on it, offering some 220 days of live cycling in 2006 and 2007. We made mistakes for sure, but the business worked; it worked technically, it worked commercially, it worked for rights owners and it worked for fans. And if it worked in 2006 imagine how it could work in 2017.


The fundamental change is happening and that throws up enormous challenges for agencies, sponsors, rights owners and, of course, broadcasters

Finally, the real revolution is here. The fundamental change is happening and that throws up enormous challenges for agencies, sponsors, rights owners and, of course, broadcasters. Delivery over internet now has a catchy new name: OTT, which is an acronym for ‘The Netflix of Sport’. Okay, bad joke, but I am sure you’ve heard about the launch of at least 10 ‘Netflixes of Sport’ recently.

The point is important: OTT delivery now represents the slow and inexorable death of the old linear sports channel model. Which means the old model wasn’t working as expected. And mainly it wasn’t working for the broadcasters. Or should I say they’re not giving up on it, but their customers are giving up on it and this has forced broadcasters to finally change. 

Linear broadcasters’ ratings are falling and subscribers are cutting the so-called ‘cord’ in favour of OTT sport and entertainment. This ‘cord-cutting’ is a mixture of: ‘cord-shaving’ (cost-cutting the bundle); cord-cutting (severing the cable/satellite totally); and, most dangerous, cord never-connecting. That’s a whole new generation brought up in the connected world, who have no need for the inflexibility and rigid cost of cable or satellite TV.

There are many examples of these changes across global broadcasters; here, I am using ESPN as an extreme case to illustrate this shift. ESPN operates on a cable affiliate model, meaning agreements with cable and satellite operators that ESPN must be included in a percentage of all media packages. ESPN gets $7.86 per subscriber per month, by far the most for a channel.

But from 2011, and a peak of 100 million subscribers, ESPN has fallen to 87 million subscribers at the end of Q1 2017. That’s still impressive, but on current ESPN cable pricing that is a drop of $1.225 billion a year. In 2014, ESPN agreed a $24-billion nine-year renewal of its NBA agreement. Since 2014, ESPN has lost 9 million subscribers (a drop from 96 million to 87 million).

If ESPN budgeted in 2014 at circa 97 million subscribers and if it didn’t churn another single customer as of today’s date, it is now about $6 billion down against projections to the end of the NBA deal.

So, firstly, ESPN with 87 million subscribers at $7.86 a month is still an impressive business. But clearly, with billions of dollars of declining revenues and rights owners’ ever-rising fee expectations, someone is going to be disappointed. It is clear that the numbers are going in just one direction, and consumers and their consumption habits have been revolutionized.

The simple fact is this: in a world of internet and LTE / 4G / 5G connectivity, all parties face fragmentation and disruption and, finally, sports broadcasters have decided to pursue OTT direct-to-consumer sports services as their priority and not as a second thought or small additional revenue stream. It also means that new providers have launched to challenge the existing broadcasters.

Major market moves in the past year have included: Perform’s DAZN launch in Germany, Japan and Canada; ESPN’s investment in MLB Advanced Media and the creation of BAM Tech; Turner Sports and its OTT subscription platform to be launched in 2018, featuring Uefa rights and much more; NBC Sports’ launch of its OTT service NBC Gold; and the launch of Eleven Sports in various markets.


We are seeing broadcasters selling content direct to consumers on a new, unprecedented scale

We are seeing broadcasters selling content direct to consumers on a new, unprecedented scale. The restructuring of Sky Sports in the UK with its channels now being created in sports verticals (Cricket, Golf, Action, Football) is paving the way for selling individual niche sports directly, rather than as a multi-sport linear offering.

And what of the Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Twitter? To some extent they’re doing a bit of fence-sitting right now. Yes, they’re in, but they’re largely playing their hands close to their chests. Amazon’s small one-year deal for a few Thursday night NFL games does not a strategy make. Still, Amazon seems likely to be the most aggressive, having recently acquired ATP rights in the UK. It can afford to experiment for now, having the cash reserves and market capitalisation which allows it to play the long game.

This revolution is fundamentally different from the past 30 years of pay-TV and the past 15 years of ‘digital’ sports broadcasting. For rights owners, leagues, federations and sponsors the dangers are enormous. Content needs to ‘wash its face’ with paying subscribers, so rights will start to develop specific values against exact consumer demand on either a national, regional or global basis. Sports broadcasters in the OTT world need to know and understand various complicated markets, including local consumer habits and cultures, but they also need to know what sports in which markets can drive how many paying subscribers.

Meanwhile, rights owners need to understand their media rights values better than ever before; they need to know their consumers… not just in their own markets, but globally. For broadcasters, the game just changed too. Smaller rights properties that can drive a significant volume of dedicated paying customers now have potentially more value than before, and some other blue-chip sets of rights might find this new world order difficult. There is a difference between casually watching sport on a linear service because it is on and proactively going to buy it on an OTT service. Broadcasters need to find large committed niche audiences that can be aggregated into a volume play, as well as finding sports properties with mass appeal.


How long before the English Premier League sells globally direct to consumers or sells globally to a company such as Amazon?

How long before the English Premier League sells globally direct to consumers or sells globally to a company such as Amazon? In theory, the financial model works commercially better than the current distribution model. Some of the potential numbers are eye-watering in their scale. If the English Premier League’s sole remit is to return revenue to its stakeholder clubs then perhaps we’ll see some changes to the model in the next sales cycle. 

Do certain rights owners such as the EPL now need to develop a more ‘hybrid’ model: a package of games for broadcasters country-by-country, as currently sold, and a reserved rights package to be sold globally direct to consumer via OTT, either by the league itself or by one of the big global players?

And what of the majority of sports properties? Many smaller sports have been neglected by larger broadcasters and have already developed their own consumer service. There are decisions ahead for everyone as to what is the optimum commercial model: pay-TV, OTT subscription-only, direct-to-consumer, free-to-air, or any number of permutations of the options. 

Agencies, rights owners and broadcasters all need new commercial models and they’re going to need new skills and a new understanding of commercial and consumer realities to best serve their stakeholders.

The last 15 years of connected sports broadcasting has been a warm-up; now is the time for the new world order to emerge.

Sportcal