Facebook's Hutton on rights-sharing, short-form content and Asian opportunities
By Simon Ward
Short-term rights deals are still a productive route for Facebook to make a mark in international sports coverage, with partnerships with broadcasters, and highlights and clips, as well as live action, all helping to build audiences, according to Peter Hutton, the experienced industry executive now heading up the social media giant’s activity in the sphere.
Hutton (pictured) claims that the relative infancy of watching live sport online, compared to traditional television viewing, means that rights-buyers and platforms are still experimenting with the technology and the response of users, so it pays to be flexible when out in the market.
Facebook recently renewed its streaming deal with Major League Baseball for the 2019 season, but with a significant reduction in the number of live regular-season games, to just six, which will be available on Facebook Watch on a non-exclusive basis globally, excluding local markets subject to blackout and select international markets, supported by extensive digital content.
In 2018, Facebook struck its first digital-only national broadcast deal with MLB, exclusively streaming 25 afternoon games across the season.
Hutton (pictured), Facebook’s director, global live sports partnerships and programming, has played down the cut in live MLB coverage, saying that, partly in order to connect with youthful fans with generally shorter attention spans, it was better to prioritise other forms of content.
In an interview with Sportcal, he said: “The biggest part of that deal was getting clips and highlights rights secured… Doing one-off games with different fans coming every week is not ideal for building an audience.”
Hutton added: “We’re happy to continue to work with MLB, but the bit that worked was clips and highlights… The audience watching on Facebook is demonstrably younger than the one on TV.”
The Briton, who was until early last year chief executive of Eurosport, the pan-European sports broadcaster, and counts multiple international networks among his employers over a near 30-year career, stressed that different conventions apply in digital media.
He said: “Facebook grows so fast that one-year deals are normal, compared with the [up to] 10-year deals in my previous world… The technology that we’re working on changes all the time.
“It’s very important that when we do sports deals or work with federations that we note that the technology is changing.”
Facebook has not been averse to multi-year live rights deals, as shown by its deal with Conmebol, the South American soccer confederation, to show matches from the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s top clubs competition, across the region from 2019 to 2022.
However, exclusivity is not a necessity, and the social media platform last week finalised a content-sharing agreement with fellow rights-holder and pay-TV operator Fox Sports for this year's competition, with the aim being to attract the largest possible audience in a still-developing broadband market.
The number of games available for free on Facebook Watch has gone up from 28 to 46, while Fox Sports has got access to all matches that were to be shown exclusively on Facebook on Thursdays, in addition to those it already has on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
This deal, for which there is no financial transaction, covers the nine Spanish-speaking Conmebol nations only, but a similar agreement is being negotiated in Brazil.
Hutton, who this year has taken on extra responsibilities at Facebook overseeing day-to-day sports partnerships in EMEA, Latin America, and APAC, insisted that the Libertadores sharing deal made sense for both parties stating: “We said we’d like it [the coverage] to be non-exclusive. It’s nice that it’s finally come right… consumption is valuable.”
He added: “One of the learning processes for us is working out the strengths and weaknesses of the proposition.”
Hutton stressed that the deal covered 2019 only, and drew a comparison with other short-term content sharing agreements Facebook has reached with broadcasters such as with Esporte Interativo for the Uefa Champions League in Latin America and with Sony Pictures Networks for LaLiga in India.
He said: “I do see it as normal to work with broadcasters. Communication habits are changing around the world and everyone’s experimenting to see how ready the audience is [for streaming].”
Hutton is particularly encouraged by Facebook’s partnership with Sony under which the broadcaster is showing 100 matches from LaLiga this season, on the back of the social media company’s three-year rights deal with the top Spanish league.
He said: “Over the course of the year the numbers have been great and combining with a broadcaster has meant reaching a larger audience [for the league] than has been the case before.”
Hutton claimed that one-season sharing deals allow digital platforms to “assess the options” when they first take on content previously held by traditional broadcasters.
He said: “When you ask people to change their habits it’s right to take cautious steps. We know people are watching live soccer on Facebook worldwide, but when you have exclusivity you have to make it work. Each journey has to be a journey people will go with.”
Facebook is still looking at opportunities in other parts of Asia, apparently not undeterred by the failure to conclude a three-year live rights deal with the Premier League for Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
A deal for the four territories for 2019-20 to 2021-22 was agreed last June, but it emerged recently that the two parties had been unable to finalise terms, and that the rights had gone back on sale.
Earlier this month, it was announced that K+, the pay-television operator in Vietnam, had won the live rights in that territory for the next three years.
Hutton said: “It got to the point where we won the tender and had a window to negotiate a contract. This normally takes a few weeks, but it had gone on for six months. We allowed the Premier League to go out to market and get another deal in place. We didn’t want there to be a last-minute deal or have the Premier League be in that position.”
He does not rule out other deals in south-east Asia, saying: “Thailand and Vietnam are still massive markets, with huge consumption on mobile.”
Facebook is also happy to take up opportunities that arise at short notice, a prime example being live coverage of this year’s US Masters, the first golf major of the year, which, in the absence of a regional broadcast deal, was streamed live in the Middle East on the platform over the last four days.
The 11th-hour agreement with Augusta National did not entail a fee, but will have ensured a significant audience for the event in the territories of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel, especially given the long-awaited 15th major victory of US star Tiger Woods.
Speaking ahead of the event, Hutton said: “The Masters is all about visibility. They [the organisers] love free-to-air so the idea of having it out there [on Facebook] was one that appealed to them.”
In addition, the platform offered selected coverage in all territories of support events including the Par 3 Contest, the curtain-raiser to the tournament, the honorary starters and yesterday's presentation of the winner's green jacket.