Calls from long-running Champions League sponsor Heineken that one game per match week should be on ‘public’ TV fell on deaf ears. No surprise. Ahead of the 2018-21 sales cycle, Uefa told Team – more than ever before - to deliver the biggest cheque
Martin Ross
Martin Ross is online news editor of Sportcal and a broadcast rights and sports agencies expert.
Pay-TV Champions League – why the big deal?
21st July 2017, 09:40

In awarding Champions League rights to pay-TV broadcasters only in Europe’s ‘big five’ markets from 2018 onwards, Uefa and Team Marketing have made history. Never before have there been no free-to-air broadcasters contracted during sales processes covering France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

‘Free TV blackout!’ screamed German newspaper headlines in June as the award of rights to Sky Deutschland and Perform’s DAZN was finally confirmed. Fans and sponsors will not be happy, the reports told us. Germany is a market characterised by a self-imposed moral rectitude when it comes to the ‘right’ to free-to-air sports coverage (note the ‘sacred cow’ of ARD’s Bundesliga coverage), but the public reaction has been felt elsewhere in Europe.

But look no further than the numbers delivered over the new three-season Champions League and Europa League contracts to appreciate the commercial rationale:

  • France:  €1.1bn ($1.27 billion) from Altice. A 105% jump
  • Spain:  €1.05bn from Mediapro/beIN Sports. A near 80% uplift
  • Germany: €560m from Sky (sold on rights to DAZN) for Champions League only. Up 49%
  • UK:  £1.2bn (€1.35bn) from BT. 32% hike
  • Italy:  Close to €900m from Sky, up 16% despite Italian market’s state of flux

Exclusivity pays. And, frankly, why shouldn’t fans be asked to dig deep to watch Europe’s elite? The Champions League has shaped itself into a premium competition and in some way a rival to domestic leagues, coverage of which fans expect to have to pay for.

BT paid 32% increase for Champions League and Europa League exclusivity

Before the European Professional Football Leagues’ renewed accord was finally thrashed out with Uefa in June, the threat by leagues to schedule domestic fixtures up against European club matches was met with a bullish response behind closed doors at Team and Uefa. ‘Go right ahead, let’s see who people want to watch if we schedule games on weekends,’ was the feeling among some in Switzerland, even if such clashes were always likely to be avoided once the leagues were appeased.

Public discontent around pay-TV only coverage of the Champions League often echoes the calls made around the emotive subject of national team games, although, unlike the latter, stops short of howls of derision from point-scoring politicians. It does seem just that watching your national team on free-to-air television - at least at a major championship - should be a viewer’s right, and the listed events rules in different countries are there to protect that right.

It’s harder to argue that following your club’s multi-national squad of galacticos tackling Europe’s elite represents an event of national importance that deserves protecting. The Champions League final is, however, among the listed events in four of the ‘big five’ markets (the UK being the exception) and remains protected by the rights sellers too.

The Champions League final is a listed event in four of Europe's big five markets

The commercial argument was always that selling exclusively to pay TV would hamper sponsorship revenue given the curtailed audience. That theory now pales into insignificance given the lofty media rights increases being delivered by Team to meet Uefa’s aggressive new targets. The differential in improved broadcast revenues far outweighs any reduction in rights fee a sponsor would seek.

Calls from long-running Champions League sponsor Heineken that one game per match week should be on ‘public’ television fell on deaf ears. No surprise. Ahead of the 2018-21 sales cycle, Uefa told Team – more than ever before - to deliver the biggest cheque.

And Team seems on course to reach Uefa’s target of €3.2 billion per season from 2018-21 club competitions commercial revenue, a marked jump on the €2.4 billion per season delivered from 2015-18. And while the media rights sales approach poses some difficulties along the corridor in Luzern for Team’s sponsorship sales team, the challenges are sure to be welcomed given the size of the commercial pie baked for Uefa.

The tough stance taken on fees over public exposure has also ended ORF’s coverage and caused the Austrian broadcaster to rethink its strategy, admitting that it can’t compete with the sums being put down by pay-TV and OTT players.

But no such free-to-air suffering in Switzerland, where SRG SSR retained one of its two games per match week. Team is, nevertheless, reported to have quadrupled the value of the Swiss rights (by awarding Teleclub more exclusivity), and any additional revenue afforded by an all-in pay-TV agreement could surely be waived so Uefa and its long-standing agency sidestep negative headlines in their ‘home’ country.

The Swiss process did produce one telling soundbyte as Roland Mägerle, the leader of SRG SSR’s sports unit, told us: “We are the only free-to-air broadcaster in Western Europe to have succeeded in securing rights to football’s showpiece competitions.” 

A boast sure to cause would-be Champions League sponsors to shuffle uneasily in their seats and one that characterises the unchartered broadcast territory for Europe’s elite competition.

Fans in markets such as Germany will have to shell out for two subscriptions if they want to see all games. And that’s the real injustice. 

Champions League broadcasters (and their viewers) will be getting more for their money in 2018-19 as the split kick-off times of 7pm (CET) and 9pm mean that two live games can be watched each night.

Fans in markets such as Germany, however, will have to shell out for two subscriptions if they want to see all games. And that’s the real injustice. Sky Deutschland customers have been flexing their muscles already over Bundesliga coverage with 85 per cent of those polled threatening to walk away if the broadcaster doesn’t adjust prices to reflect the 40 exclusive games to be shown by Eurosport.

The exact split is still to be unveiled, but Sky is expected to show 34 Champions League games per season, and DAZN 104. And while Sky will enjoy the better picks, you have to feel for their customers now faced with paying for subscriptions to DAZN and Eurosport Player to see all of the German top flight and Europe’s elite tournament.

I’m fine with paying to watch the Champions League. Just don’t make me pay twice.