Sport

BT/UEFA Rights Deal

08 March 2009

Last week, BT Chief Executive Gavin Patterson was reported as saying that “rampant inflation in sports rights” had to end.

Today we learn that BT is going to pay £394m a season for UEFA Champions’ League and Europa League rights from the 2018/19 season, up from £299m a season under the previous agreement.

By my calculation, that’s a 31.8% increase over three years.

What was that about “rampant inflation” again?

BT’s new deal also includes all rights to highlights, meaning that there won’t be any TV highlights on ITV. Instead, BT will share free highlights in social media.

Hmm.

And of course UEFA is going to an 1800/2000 GMT/BST structure on Champions’ League match days, meaning lots of UK residents will still be at work or commuting while matches are taking place, as already happens with the Europa League. Oh good.

Prior to this deal being announced there had been lots of rumours in the press that UEFA advertisers were unhappy with the loss of free-to-air coverage.

One estimate suggests that being a tier one partner of the Champions’ League costs $70m. There are eight main sponsors of the Champions’ League (Heineken, Mastercard, Gazprom, Sony, Nissan, PepsiCo, Adidas and Unicredit), and if we assume that they all pay the same, that’s $560m a year in sponsorship revenue (Approx £460m).

UEFA’s calculation is that £100m more for UK rights is worth it, set against £460m of pan-European sponsorship revenues, and any reduced reach for those advertisers within the UK market for their premier competition.

This feels like a very short-term deal.

There is a quote in BT’s press release that says:

BT will enhance its social media coverage to reach new audiences, by making clips, weekly highlights, UEFA’s magazine show, and both finals available for free on social media. BT streamed both finals last year on YouTube for the first time, taking the number of people who watched BT’s live coverage of the finals to more than twelve million. The company will also seek to bring the best of the action to its large mobile customer base.

That suggests that only the final will be made available free. Everything else will be behind a BT paywall. No BT Showcase any more. There’s the possibility of BT sub-licencing some matches to another channel, but absolutely no guarantee they will.

I’ve examined the 12m number before, and it is to be regarded very carefully indeed. First of all 12m is not 12m different people – it’s the sum of the Champions’ League audience and Europa League audience. Football fans being who they are, that’s a lot of the same people who watched both matches.

And as I mentioned in the previous article, BT is using “reach” rather than the more usual “average audience” to get as big a number as they can. Last week 3.45m watched a one-sided FA Cup replay between Man City and Huddersfield. 3.45m means that at an average of 3.45m watched the entire broadcast from 1930-2200. Audiences aren’t constant, and once Man City were well ahead, audiences drifted away to other programmes. Other people turn on late and perhaps watch the last half an hour. Overall, at any given point in the entire match 3.45m were watching. But BT is using a reach number – the number of different people who watched any of the game. This is necessarily bigger. And it’s not a number that would normally be bandied around by a broadcaster when talking about viewership of their shows.

Finally, without a great deal more information we can’t be sure what the 3m YouTube component of the audience really means. First of all, the Champions’ League final had 1.8m views, meaning the Europa League must have had about 1.2m. YouTube registers a view when someone watches as little 30 seconds. So this almost certainly doesn’t mean 1.8m or 1.2m watched the entire match. And again, many of the same fans will have watched both matches.

Digging into BT’s YouTube channel doesn’t seem to surface the complete live videos any longer. There are just highlights packages. There are a couple of short videos with several hundred thousand views each, and it’s not clear if these were once the live streams (I suspect they may have been), or just incredibly popular promo videos, but either way, we need to be careful what we’re counting. Interestingly, the CL promo has around 470,000 views while the Europa League promo has over 600,000 views. If they were the live streams, then that doesn’t total 3m.

To be fair to BT for one moment, a single YouTube view does not equal a single viewer. Many will have been streaming to smart TVs with sizeable numbers potentially watching. But online video views can be a murky business, and the methodology is completely different to the BARB measurement for TV, meaning combined audiences figures should be treated with tremendous caution.

I suppose in the end, I find it incredibly disappointing that either a single match isn’t made available to ITV, C4 or C5, and that highlights are removed from TV altogether. Saying that you’ll make highlights available in social media is a nice addition, but shouldn’t replace a broadcast channel. Many older viewers in particular will struggle to see footage now. It’s the elderly and poorest in society who don’t have access to the internet for streaming and the devices necessary to enable them.

UEFA clearly doesn’t care about those viewers. BT will pay more for complete exclusivity, which they now have. And if you either can’t afford BT, or don’t have the means or ability to watch their social streams, then tough luck. No European football for you.

If this were any other sport – I’m looking at you, cricket – you’d question the ramifications for the future of the sport by striking this kind of lockout deal. But this is football, and the major competitions are always likely to be important.

The only tiny bit of hope is that Karen Bradley, Culture Secretary, recently talked of “future proofing” listed events like the World Cup. Would free-to-air Champions’ League highlights ever be included in that list?

Incidentally, if you were in Belgium, Germany or Italy, you’d be able to see, at minimum, the finals of the Champions’ League or Europa League of a home club reached the final, because of rules regarding listed events in those countries.

A 32% increase in fees? This time next year, the next Premier League TV deal will be being announced. I bet over in Gloucester Place, the Premier League is rubbing its hands in anticipation of next year, unless BT and Sky reach some kind of appeasement in respect of their relative positions in the TV football marketplace.

More “rampant inflation” to come?

[Later] An interesting piece in The Guardian about BT’s need to win these rights following a fairly miserable year for them. Although I would make a couple of points:

  • Only in football could a 32% increase in rights fees be considered to have cooled a little. BT drove the last round of increased fees by making a knockout bid. This time, they’ve still paid a substantial premium at a time when Sky “…did not look to submit a knockout Champions League bid.”
  • The Guardian piece notes that Sky is paying £11m a game under its current deal compared with £1.1m a game for BT’s UEFA deal. But that’s not really a fair comparison because Sky’s Premier League games are not all played simultaneously. In the group stages there are sixteen matches per round, spread over two nights. Even with two timeslots a night, that means at least three out of four matches will be behind a red button. And you can only watch one match at a time. Even watching the “goals” show, it means that a Tuesday evening is costing £8.8m for BT in rights fees. Sky only schedules a couple of simultaneous games on the final day of the season if there’s something to be played for. Yes, there’s “Super Sunday”, but you can watch both games.

Sky/Discovery Carriage Dispute

Channel carriage disputes are relatively rare in the UK, but we’re in for a sizeable one right now, with Discovery publicly stepping forward and saying that from the end of this month, Sky subscribers may no longer get access to a Discovery channels. It seems that the two companies have been unable to reach agreement on how much Sky pays Discovery from the subscription fees it collects from viewers.

Sky says that it has overpaid for Discovery’s channels for years.

Discovery says that it is now paid less than it was ten years ago. They claim Sky is playing hardball because of its Premier League rights inflation.

The whole dispute has become very public, very quickly. I noticed that during the BBC’s reporting of a Venus/Serena final in the Australian Open at the weekend, there was already a crawl along the Eurosport footage they’d lifted.

Discovery has set up a Keep Discovery website, and their social media outlets are alerting followers to the dispute. This is straight out of the US-playbook, where such tactics are common and often go public. Sometimes they’re quickly resolved; but other times they go on for years (In Los Angeles there is ongoing dispute between Time Warner Cable who own SportsNet LA with exclusive LA Dodgers coverage, and the major cable companies who actually reach customers in the area. As a result, most locals have been unable to watch local basseball coverage for at least three seasons now.)

Meanwhile, Sky has also added a section to its customer service website.

While I’m not sure how long discussions have been going on, this must have been a while. I know this because sometime around October last year, I completed a Sky customer research survey in which many of the questions seemed to be about how much I valued Discovery’s channels, and whether I’d continue as a customer if I lost access to their channels.

A few thoughts on this:

  • I’m sure Sky is trying to save cash after its record breaking Premier League rights bid. While they’ve not passed full costs onto consumers, they’ve clearly cut back in places, reducing coverage of some sports, and cutting overheads where possible. They do continue to invest in original programming however.
  • According to BARB, in December 2016 the Discovery Group had a 1.69% share of viewing. But this includes Quest, a free-to-air channel which is potentially unaffected by this dispute.
  • Discovery is clearly investing in Europe. It took full ownership of Eurosport in 2015, and has also bought a large swathe of exclusive European Olympic rights beginning in 2018 in some territories.
  • Sky announced a 9% fall in operating profits today as a direct result of their increased Premier League costs.
  • This is not just a UK affair. The disagreement extends to Sky Deutchland as well.
  • Eurosport calls itself the “Home of Cycling” and it does indeed carry vastly more cycling coverage than any other channel. This ironically means that the Team Sky cycling team (fully owned by Sky) will be largely invisible to Sky TV viewers post the 31st January if the dispute is not resolved. At least until the Tour de France which is also carried on ITV4.
  • My favourite FAQ on the Sky site is: “I regularly watched Eurosport. What can I watch on Sky instead?” To which the answer seems to be Premier League football, rugby union, cricket and rugby league. None of which is much use if I actually wanted to watch cycling, downhill skiing, tennis or snooker. Sky Sports and Eurosport UK have almost no sporting crossovers!
  • When live sports are affected, it’s not uncommon for viewers to look for “alternatives.” These aren’t always legal. If your favourite sport goes off-air, and you’re not willing to change TV provider, that mate who’s mentioned how easy it is to set up a Kodi box and pull in illegal feeds, might open your eyes to how easy piracy is. And that doesn’t help any sports TV channels. Why pay if you can get them free?*

In the meantime, do I pay £19.99 for a year’s subscription to Eurosport Player? It’s on sale until 31st January when the price reverts to £59.99? It works with Chromecast. Paying would be hedging my bets. And if the channels do disappear, then a conversation with Sky’s retention team might see me recouping that cost.

* I’m not advocating this, but it must surely be a temptation.

An Egregiously Bad Chart

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The chart above is screen-grabbed from an otherwise excellent ITV4 documentary called When Football Changed the World. It looked at the state of the game as the old First Division broke away to form the Premier League at the end of the 80s and start of the 90s. It interviewed plenty of key figures from the period both on and off the pitch.

At time of writing, it’s on the ITV Hub and is well worth watching. I’ve no doubt it’ll get a few more outings on ITV4 over the coming weeks and months.

But that chart is just dreadful for a couple of reasons.

The documentary was trying to illustrate the spiralling increase in UK Premier League costs over time. The first deal starting with the 1992/93 season was indeed worth £191m, and the latest beginning this season is worth a cumulative £5.1bn.

To put that in context, the latest deal is nearly 27 times the original deal!

Whereas, looking at the graphpaper-styled background this graphic is using, it looks like 5.1bn is about 1.5 times as big as 191m.

They’ve just not used a proper vertical scale on the chart. Revenues have risen extraordinarily, and this chart just doesn’t show it.

In fact, the chart should look something like this:

Just using proper scaling shows the quite stratospheric rise in rights.

But in fact, the value of the overall deal each time doesn’t really show the whole story. The first deal that started in the 1992/93 season was for 5 years, whereas since 2001/02, they’ve been for three years. So if we look at the rise in terms of cost per season rather than per deal, we get this.

Note that since the changes only really effect the first couple of deals, the charts look pretty similar. But the growth per season is actually 44x the price of the first Premier League deal rather than 27x if you consider each deal in isolation.

The other thing that has changed is the number of matches covered by each deal. Basically the number of matches under each deal tends to increase over time. And that does mitigate some of that inflation. The first deal saw each Premier League fixture costing Sky about £600,000 each. This season, on average games cost £10.2m each. Again, it’s a massive jump, but it’s 16x the first deal’s cost, which goes some way to mitigate the 44x increase in rights costs per season.

I think the per season chart is the fairest though. This represents the real amount going into the game from TV companies. And to the clubs, looking at their much healthier bottom lines, that’s what matters.

Note: I’ve tried to use the widely reported values of each Premier League TV deal, but the 2001/02-2003/04 deal in particular seems a little opaque with some conflicting numbers. More recent deals are widely reported because they have a material effect on PLC’s bottom lines.

My Problem with Reporting of the Fancy Bears Hack

There is much wrong in the world of sport, including doping.

Intrinsically most sports bodies are placed in tough positions, often at odds with their own self-interests. Should a sport admit to a doping problem when it may damage its own future?

Then there’s WADA – the World Anti-Doping Authority. It has an ineffectual leader in Craig Readie, has been criticised for not doing enough, and they’ve been hacked by a group calling itself “Fancy Bears.” While it doesn’t seem to be definitive, it would seem the hacker group is Russian, and there’s a widely-held belief that the hack is in response to the banning of some Russian competitors at the Olympics in Rio (as well as all Russian Paralympic competitors).

This followed what would seem to be prima facie evidence of state sponsored doping conducted in Russia in recent years, and notably during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The target of the hack group seems to be Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE); certificates given to athletes that allow them to continue to compete, while taking drugs that would otherwise be deemed illegal. TUEs are usually granted at a fairly high level, with doctors representing the governing bodies determining whether they are allowable.

While an athlete’s overall health is, like anybody else’s, a matter for them and their doctor, some have chosen to talk about them publicly in the past.

In this instance, the hacking group is presenting details of the TUEs of select athletes. And when I say select, I mean predominantly American, British and German. Curiously they have not published the details of any TUEs given to Russian athletes.

And that’s where my problem lies.

This isn’t like Wikileaks putting up a full database and letting people sift through it. It’s a staggered and potentially incomplete leak with a particular story to spin. And the press seems to be falling hook, line and sinker for it.

The weekend’s newspapers were full of stories about the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. But since it’s an incomplete set of records, we’re not getting a full picture. We don’t know, for example, how many TUEs are awarded full stop. Perhaps the majority of athletes have them, or have had them? We simply don’t know.

Instead we’re being drip fed records to support a hacker group’s own story.

Now I do think that there’s a very legitimate set of questions to ask around the use of TUEs. For example, if an athlete is so ill that they need strong drugs, should they be competing at all? Some sports may inherently cause health issues that mean many competitors are on similar sets of drugs e.g. asthma amongst swimmers and cyclists. Again, we don’t know. R

The problem is that we’re falling into the hands of selective leakers who are dictating the story.

Maybe all TUE certificates should be made public when they’re awarded. On the other hand, health records are normally very confidential documents. Many of us prefer not to have all our maladies out in the open. Should part of deal of being a professional athlete be that your medical records are an open book?

One way or another, a hack took place, and once the information is out there, it can’t be ignored. But let’s not forget the bigger picture, where all things seem to point east…

Champions’ League on BT

Since I had a look at the Europa League viewership the other day, I thought it was only fair to consider the Champions’ League Final – particularly as some every-so-slightly misleading press information seems to have escaped.

First off, it’s worth saying that this year’s final was one of the worst directed finals I’ve seen in ages. Technically it felt all over the place, with inappropriate cutaways, overuse of the Spidercam, using it for replays of action for which it wasn’t really suitable. Worst of all were the continued crowd reaction shots.

It’s a repeated issue at sports events that directors task some camera operators with finding people “emoting” as much as possible on screen. As often as not, it’ll be a woman the camera lands on, despite the crowd being heavily male skewed. While I’d love to think it was making the sport accessible for both men and women, in fact, it’s an eye candy thing, and frankly it’s outright sexist. See also “podium girls”, coverage of much cricket around the world, and women with umbrellas at the start of motorsport events.

Worst than all of that was the rush to cut to a young girl supporting the losing Atletico Madrid, in floods of tears at full time, when there were plenty of celebrating Real Madrid fans to show. Showing despondent losing fans is fine, but featuring a small child is outright nasty.

UEFA need to get a grip. I don’t know who was responsible, but it was a mess. The sound for the needless opening ceremony at the start was abysmal (at least watching via BT Sport), and indeed either the event director or BT themselves lost interest in Alicia Keys preferring to show players waiting in the tunnel. It didn’t get much better for Andrea Bocelli who had to sing the pointless “anthem” that Man City keeps getting fined for booing.

Leaving aside Pepe’s appalling antics, what about the overall audience figures?

Well unlike with the Europa League, there don’t seem to be actual figures easily available. The Guardian’s report, which, like that in The Drum, seem to be drawn from a BT press release, mentions 4.3m watching with a peak audience of 3.3m.

That’s a bit odd. What you normally get is a peak audience, and then an average for the whole programme. The average is necessarily lower than the peak.

Therefore 4.3m must be the number of people who tuned in for at least a few minutes over the course of the game. A reach figure. Interesting, but not how TV ratings are usually reported. You get a big number, but it doesn’t reflect the audience of the match itself.

Based on a peak of 3.3m, it suggests an overall viewership of, perhaps, 3m. (I’ll update this if I can find an accurate number, but I think I’m being generous).

Let’s put that in perspective and compare with ITV’s audiences in recent years.

DateTeamsResultChannelAudience (m)
28 May 2016Real Madrid - Atletico Madrid1-1 (5-3 pens)BT Sport Europe/BT Showcase~3
6 June 2015Barcelona - Juventus3-1ITV4.31
24 May 2014Real Madrid - Atletico Madrid4-1ITV5.16
25 May 2013Bayern Munich - Borussia Dortmund
2-1ITV3.71
19 May 2012Chelsea - Bayern Munich1-1 (4-3 pens)ITV7.00

So clearly the lowest audience, although last year’s Barcelona-Juventus game was a little low itself. The last British team to make the final was Chelsea in 2012 when 7m people watched.

Ah yes! But this doesn’t consider YouTube!

Well as I said previously, making the match available on YouTube is smart, especially since it’s far more robust than most broadcasters’ own video players. But we need to be very wary of the numbers being bandied about.

“The telecoms giant, which said that it aimed to make the finals as accessible as possible despite paying £897m for the pay-TV rights, said about 1.8 million viewers watched the match live for free on YouTube.”

Now I’ve no doubt that BT got some reasonably detailed metrics from Google on viewers. But I’d need to be persuaded that the 1.8m number is an average viewership over the duration of the programme. More likely it’s based on YouTube “views.” That would tend to mean 1.8m views of at least 30 seconds, at which point YouTube considers you a viewer. A lot of views, but not the same as a lot of people or a large cumulative audience.

If I logged in from time to time during the course of the fixture to see how it was progressing, that might mean that I was considered another view on each occassion.

If I started watching the match on TV, but was then forced to watch in another room on YouTube because someone else in the household wanted to watch Britain’s Got Talent, I’d potentially be double counted.

On the other hand, I might have Cast YouTube to my TV set and watched with half a dozen friends. YouTube views isn’t able to help with this situation either.

Video views online are not the same as a TV audience.

Simply adding together peak audiences and YouTube views across the two European finals is not what anyone should be doing.

Considering that no British teams were in the final, BT didn’t achieve a dreadful audience. But reports that say the two finals were “watched by more than 12 million across digital and TV,” are utterly misleading, counting the same people perhaps multiple times.

Whether UEFA thinks that it’s premium club competition was as available to all as much as it might have been will be for UEFA and BT to discuss. But let’s not believe all the hype and dubious numbers.

Watching European Football Finals on TV

Well the first results are in. BT is very pleased that BT Sport got a record audience on Wednesday night for the Europa League Final – the first big final of their three year exclusive contract for UEFA Champions’ League and Europa League coverage.

According to Media Guardian, it drew an average of 1.6m viewers on BT Sport Europe, and a further 606,000 viewers on BT Sport Showcase, giving a combined audience of 2.2m.

If you’d wanted to watch the game on Wednesday, then Virgin and Sky viewers could tune to BT Sport Europe which was unencrypted for the fixture meaning all could watch. If you were a Freeview viewer, then you could navigate your way to channel 59 where BT Sport Showcase mostly acts as a “barker” channel encouraging you to subscribe, but on Wednesday was showing the game.

When BT won the rights to these European games in 2013, it promised UEFA that each British team in the competitions would appear at least once free to air. And in the first season of the deal, they did all appear precisely once. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know when games are free to air, and although BT did do some marketing, you might have had to search.

Frankly I don’t believe the average viewer even knows BT Showcase exists, let alone that you could watch some football on the channel. And yes, I know BT did buy some advertising to promote the final including, for example, the back page of Metro on Wednesday.

When it came to the final, BT announced a deal that sees the games stream on YouTube too. Sensible, and it should be added that YouTube viewing is not included in that 2.2m. Be wary of any numbers you see banded around, as they’re unlikely to be directly comparable to the average audience figures that BARB publish. Nonetheless, YouTube does at least mean the game was accessible if you knew where to look, even if a mobile device is not the best way to watch football.

But you have to think that a match featuring a club the size of Liverpool would have achieved much greater viewing figures overall had it been free-to-air.

I dug into some old fixtures and came up with this list of performances over the last five Europea League finals.

DateTeamsResultChannelAudience (m)
18 May 2016Sevilla v Liverpool3-1BT Sport Europe/BT Showcase2.20
27 May 2015Sevilla v Dnipro3-2ITV40.80
14 May 2014Sevilla v Benfica0-0 (4-2 pens)ITV41.21
14 May 2013Chelsea v Benfica2-1ITV15.66
9 May 2012Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao3-0C51.46

Put into that context and 2.20m is pretty low. Yes – other games have had lower audiences, but then they weren’t exactly “must watch” for UK viewers.

When Chelsea was in the final in 2013 it was watched by 5.66m. Liverpool would probably have done better than that on ITV.

For what it’s worth, 885,000 people watched the highlights on ITV at 10.45 – around 1.5x the number who watched on BT Sport Showcase. How many didn’t even realise they could watch live?

There have been rumours that UEFA is unhappy with BT’s performance with their free-to-air games. It may be too late for this contract, but these low viewerships do affect the revenue UEFA brings in in sponsorship. But then BT is paying through the nose for exclusivity.

It should be said that these are overnights for this year, and might rise fractionally once delayed viewing is added – although it’d be a particular type of masochistic Liverpool fan who wanted to watch the game later. And I really have no idea how popular YouTube was.

The Champions’ League Final will be interesting to cast an eye over in a week or so. With no British club in it, the interest will be lower. But just how low will it be?

If I was BT I would have sub-licenced these games to ITV or C5. I’m sure some kind of a deal could have been done where the game was presented to audiences at “BT Sport on ITV” or some such thing. (ESPN uses this model with its sister network ABC in the US – although they’re obviously both Disney companies). ITV would generate much bigger ad revenues which could potentially be shared, UEFA is kept happy, and BT gets a free showcase to promote its ongoing coverage of the full competition next season.

Live Football on the Radio

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No, I’m not writing about the new Premier League contracts for UK radio. They do seem a bit overdue though, and I’m slightly sad that Absolute Radio has made clear that it’s not bidding for live coverage from next season. So I expect some kind of carve up between Five Live and Talksport, with Talksport 2 perhaps getting the Absolute Radio second choice 3pm on a Saturday while they do “around the grounds” on the main service.

Anyway, we’ll wait and see.

No, I thought I’d write about a couple of my experiences of the (almost) final day of the Premier League this season. As ever, all the games kick off simultaneously at 3pm. Sky Sports tend to show about three of the games live on TV, while Five Live and Absolute Radio each broadcast a game on the radio.

I was at Arsenal’s final game of the season against Aston Villa. While most of the league had been decided, there was still a small chance that if Spurs failed to get a draw away against an already-relegated Newcastle, and Arsenal beat bottom-of-the-table and also already-relegated Aston Villa, then we’d finish ahead of them for the 21st season in a row.

Small consolation for underachieving in a very a hit and miss season that had season 5000-1 shots Leicester storm away with the title, but these things matter in North London.

There was also a small chance for Man Utd to just pip Man City to final Champions’ League spot. This was the fixture that TV and radio was most interested in. Gaining that spot makes a massive difference to the clubs involved.

So I brought my Pure Move 2500 DAB radio with me to listen at the game – primarily to discover what was happening at St James’ Park where Spurs were playing.

Now you might think that in this day and age, we’ve moved on from radio, and mobile websites and apps are where it’s all at. I could even stream Sky Sports on my phone with Sky Go.

Well that’s fine in principle, but have you tried to get mobile data in a venue with 60,000 other people? Let me tell you that it doesn’t matter who your operator is, or what kind of 4G they’re offering, you’re going to struggle to send a text or update Twitter. Unusually, we were sitting quite high up in the stadium and could probably “see” mobile masts from further afield, but data was a struggle.

So for the first half I put a headphone in my ear from time to time to see what was happening. Obviously there was confused news from Old Trafford where a security alert would lead to the game against Bournemouth being cancelled (It was later reported to be a dummy device that had been mistakenly left in the stadium after a private security company had conducted a test. I imagine heads will roll.)

Arsenal scored early to go 1-0 up, and I knew that Newcastle were leading against Spurs. Things were looking good. But it wouldn’t take much for Spurs to get an equaliser. I took my headphones out to be sociable.

When midway through the first half, the crowd roared, I knew that meant another goal had gone in for Newcastle. I popped my headphones back in and when Five Live threw to the Emirates, they reported that the crowd here had cheered the second Newcastle goal.

Then the presenters got a little supercilious. They noted that Five Live had reported the goal a good thirty seconds or more prior to that. Was technology actually slowing things down? With everyone using apps to get the score, they were doing so on a larger than necessary delay? The old-fashioned “wireless” was faster!

They had a point. We were getting our information slower. So for the second half, I didn’t remove my headphone.

Arsenal were still only 1-0 up, and although dominating, had not scored a second goal for safety. Meanwhile Spurs had got a goal back, and now Newcastle were down to 10 men. This wasn’t good news. It didn’t matter what the Arsenal result was if Spurs gained a draw. We’d finish behind them.

Then the crowd roared again. It was 3-1!

Except, I’d heard no such thing on Five Live. But the joyous guys in front were pointing at the goal on the BBC Sport app. On the radio, Five Live was confirming the Man Utd game to be off, talking about other games, and not mentioning Newcastle.

Finally they reported that there was a penalty at Newcastle and crossed to the game. We then got [delayed] commentary of the goal. It was indeed 3-1.

But that had taken a full minute or more to report.

Given the comments earlier, they couldn’t complain about fans using apps, while they were not instantly reporting goals!

Yes – it was a potentially very serious situation in Old Trafford where the bomb squad had been called to check a device that we now know was safe. But it’s probably not best to pipe up about how good radio is when it actually wasn’t nearly as fast as other means.

It was about then that I realised I was listening to the wrong station. BBC London carries a lot of Spurs games, so I retuned and listened to the rest of the Newcastle game enthralled, as Spurs collapsed and the commentators could hardly believe what they were seeing.

I was able to relay 4-1 and then 5-1 scorelines in rapid succession to those sitting around me – far faster than anybody else!

So yes, radio can be the fastest. But don’t oversell yourselves…

That all said, if any of the big Euro’s games go to penalties, switch on the radio. Things like HD encoding and satellite delays mean that you’ll hear the results on the radio a good 3-5 seconds ahead of television, even on DAB. So you’ll be put out of your misery faster!

And of course you should still always carry a radio to the final game of the season.

F1 to Follow Cricket Into Obscurity

Here’s how F1 and Bernie Ecclestone do business:

21 December 2015Channel 4 wins terrestrial rights to Formula 1, after the BBC hands them back. There was rumoured to be a fight with ITV for them.

Bernie Ecclestone, Chief Executive Officer of the Formula One group said: “I am sorry that the BBC could not comply with their contract but I am happy that we now have a broadcaster that can broadcast Formula 1® events without commercial intervals during the race.

“I am confident that Channel 4 will achieve not only how the BBC carried out the broadcast in the past but also with a new approach as the World and Formula 1® have moved on.”

(No – that second line really doesn’t really make any sense, but I swear I cut and paste that from the press release!)

20 January 2016 – Channel 4, having announced a new presenting and commentary team, broadcasts its first race in Australia as the new F1 season gets underway.

23 January 2016 AM – The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GDPA) publishes an open letter to stakeholders, followers and fans expressing concerns about their sport. This includes an implied concern about the changing TV environment as the sport has shifted from free-to-air to pay TV, leading to a decline in overall audiences.

23 January 2016 PMSky Sports announces an exclusive deal for all F1 rights from the 2019 season. Only the British Grand Prix and highlights will be made available free-to-air – presumably somewhere like Pick TV.

In essence the sport will disappear from most UK viewers’ screens despite a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers being British based, employing many people.

I’m very much a laissez-faire F1 watcher – or at least I used to be. If I was around and it was on, I might watch. But over the years, it has become duller. Tracks have turn numbers and not names; over-taking is so rare we get it from multiple angles; racing is manufactured through forced pit-stops; each season there are seemingly less than a handful of drivers who can win a race while the rest make up has beens. And that’s before we get to the dubious political aspects of F1 which sees the carnival pitching up in whichever country will give Bernie Eccelestone and his cronies the most cash.

Earlier this year I was appalled when I saw that Silverstone was recruiting for volunteers to help out at the British Grand Prix a la Olympic volunteers. This is a multi-billion pound industry. Would you expect, say, a commercial music festival to be manned by volunteers? Nope. They’re nearly all paid. It may be minimum wage, but that’s still cash in hand rather than a T-shirt.

I’ve got to feel sorry for Channel 4 in all of this. They’ve not been given a chance by F1. They’ve only broadcast a single race before losing the rights, and there’s been no time to see what innovations in coverage they can bring to the sport before the tablecloth has been whipped from underneath them. They have no chance to prove their metal or attempt to make a viable business case for continuing their coverage beyond the first three years. What kind of “partner” does that to you? I think that even if this deal has been in the making for many months, it’s extraordinarily bad grace of F1/Sky to announce it so soon.

It’s as though F1 is sticking two fingers up at C4 and saying – carry on paying us for the next three seasons, but we don’t care, because we have a new best friend.

Yes – Sky wants F1 exclusively. The fans are probably considered upmarket, and often don’t follow other sports. But expect ratings and interest in F1 to wane as it has done for cricket and golf before them.

Out of sight – out of mind.

I understand that this makes sense to Sky, because Sky has profits to achieve each year. But you’d be foolish to think that Sky actually has the long-term interests of the sport in mind. Instead they have spreadsheets detailing what proportion (and it will only be a proportion) of free-to-air F1 viewers they can sell subscriptions to.

I’ve no doubt their coverage will be technically superb. UHD is fine in principle, but in practice I’ll wait for standards to fully finalise themselves before I even think about upgrading. And you do have to listen to the world’s dreariest commentator in Martin Brundle – the man who on learning in 2011 that Sky would share rights with the BBC, instantly Tweeted a “come and get me” message.

But popularity will diminish as it has done with cricket, and is doing with golf. That’s what happens when your sport is owned by an investment company. They want the highest returns over the shortest period.

Virgin Media and the Premier League

The Win

Judging from recent interviews across the media, Virgin Media CEO Tom Mockridge is out and about shouting loudly about his company’s complaint about how the Premier League sells its UK TV rights. His complaint is broadly that the league only sells 168 of the 360 fixtures each season, artificially limiting supply to keep prices high.

The media fusillade includes pieces in The Guardian, the FT, the Telegraph and the BBC. He also popped up on Radio 4’s Media Show.

But this isn’t new news. The complaint was actually made to Ofcom last year ahead of the most recent Premier League rights auction. Furthermore, Virgin Media asked Ofcom to suspend that UK TV rights sale ahead of making a decision on this investigation – something Mockridge sidestepped a little during the Media Show interview. Ofcom refused that, and the auction went ahead with the new rights deal running for the 2016/17 – 2018/19 seasons.

The Premier League currently packages up fixtures into seven packages valued differently depending on a variety of measures including which “pick” of the weekend’s fixture that package entitles the broadcaster to. There are lots of rules about ensuring that every team gets a minimum TV exposure, when games can be scheduled (particularly with teams involved in Thursday night Europa league footabll), and when is optimal for TV viewing figures.

What that means is that not all seven packages are equal. In the most recent rights rounds for the period starting next season, Sky retained its 4pm Sunday slot and got back Saturday 12:45pm package from BT. These get most of the best fixtures – along with the Sunday 2pm slot which Sky also owns. BT will be taking over the 5:30pm Saturday slot.

But let’s look at some of the arguments Mockridge makes as part of his case.

What about his argument over how rights are sold in domestic leagues elsewhere in comparison to the Premier League?

Well he’s right to say that most games in US leagues like the NFL, MLB and NBA are televised, but it’s a complicated web of sales there, combining national network TV, local TV and digital offerings.

The biggest sport in the US in terms of television money is the NFL, and it’s notable that NFL games avoid Friday nights (High school football – “Friday Night Lights”) and Saturdays (College football – itself a big TV money spinner). So games are mostly played on Sundays, with a Monday night game and more recently some Thursday night games. That’s effectively the NFL’s way of having the equivalent of having a 3pm-5pm “blackout” as we have in the UK when there is no live domestic football.

Few would argue that it’s sensible offering televised Premier League football during that window unless you want to destroy the fabric of the game down through the Football League, SPL and beyond.

Mockridge’s solution seems to be one of two things: the Premier League offers more money to the lower leagues to offset this, and to use regional blackouts as used in the US.

In the first case, I’m not sure that holds up. Mockridge is asking for something that by his reckoning will keep inflationary rights in check – in other words limiting what the Premier League can make. That would mean that the league would surely be less inclined to deliver revenues to lower league divisions?

As for regional blackouts? Well that’s complicated, and Mockridge is missing one massive difference.

The US model works something like this in the case of the NFL: home markets are broadly defined as a 75 mile radius around the team’s ground. The idea is that if a game is not sold out 72 hours in advance, the game cannot air locally. This is to encourage fans to attend live games rather than simply stay at home. Plus full grounds look and sound better on television. In reality the rules are bit more complex. But key is the fact that the FCC has recently lifted its rules on blackouts, and this season NFL teams have lifted the rules too.

Different sports have different blackout rules, but it’s really unclear to me how they’d work in the UK.

Mockridge talks in interviews about blocking out a Manchester United games to Manchester viewers and Arsenal games to London viewers if they’re played at 3pm. And it’s true, technology could allow this.

But that’s completely missing the point of US-style blackouts.

The NFL blackout rules were put in place to ensure full stadia for NFL teams, not to support a wider American football eco-system. As I’ve said, the NFL does that by not clashing with high school and college games.

In the UK, there’s no need to prevent Manchester viewers from seeing Manchester United play on TV because they, like most Premier League teams, sell out pretty much all their home games. Across the Premier League this season, grounds have been 96% full on average thus far.

We’re talking about people staying at home to watch any Premier League games rather than going out to watch Macclesfield, Brentford or indeed any teams outside the Premier League.

Blacking out United’s games in Manchester would still leave another four or so live games for Manchester fans to choose from at 3pm on Saturday. Lower division gates would suffer as fans stayed at home and watched another fixture.

Other sports leagues around the world think only of their own leagues. We actually have an ecosystem that considers the full league structure. There’s no relegation or promotion in the NFL/NBA/MLB – so the leagues don’t especially care beyond college sport.

Then there is Mockridge’s underlying thesis that offering every game would somehow curtail inflationary rights revenues. I’m just not sure that’s the case. The reason we have the inflation we do at the moment is because in the UK there are two major players in BT and Sky who have both seen sport as a core part of their offering. In fact, while broadcasters have seen massive inflation overall in rights, they’ve not actually needed to increase their subscriptions to that degree. Sky has increased its prices a little, but not remotely close to the 70% Mockridge talks about. Sky says it’ll find the savings it needs elsewhere. BT bought a lower priced package this time round, and is better able to swallow the price increase without introducing price increases (That’s not to say it won’t of course).

In the end bidders can only pay what they think the market will bear. In the same way that Virgin Media sets the price of its broadband for customers based on what they believe consumers are willing to pay for high-speed internet access. That price Virgin Media charges is based on lots of things including what it costs to provide the service, but also what others in the market are charging.

Furthermore, just because there are more games on offer, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that the value of each game would go down. It’d all depend on how the Premier League retailed those games. A third bidder might enter the market – Virgin Media for example. Additional bidders boost prices.

I can’t see the Premier League choosing to do anything other than offer games in packages as they do now. Currently every game outside the 3pm slot is part of a package.

In radio, there are two packages that include the 3pm slot – Five Live has one and Absolute Radio the other. Since the number of games played on Saturdays at 3pm is quite variable, and all the “top” games have already been shifted out of that slot, then I can only really see Premier League offering a complete package of those remaining fixtures. But that would probably just bring extra revenue for those games into play as either Sky or BT bid for those games as a red-button offering.

While that might mean the average price per game overall falls a little, the actual total rights payments handed over would increase. And an overall increase surely means more total cost to customers?

Virgin Media’s complaint seems to be specifically about “collective” selling. It’s unclear to me whether whether they expect every fixture to be sold independently – perhaps auctioned on a fixture by fixture basis. I’m not sure that doing that would be any more helpful to fans. You’d never know what channel was showing what game. Broadcasters are bound to stick with offering monthly subscription rather than offer fixtures pay-per-view model (Sky previously tried this you will recall).

So were more than two groups to bid, consumers wanting full access would have to pay more than ever.

And the last thing the Premier League should follow would be a Spanish model where the big sides – notably Real Madrid and Barcelona – generate the vast majority of television revenues leaving a league that is heavily weighted towards those two clubs. A per-game model would vastly favour big clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Well maybe not Chelsea 🙂

Finally the claim by Mockridge that additional money generated by changing the rights sale process would deliver might be returned to fans in the form of cheaper tickets seems laughable. Much as I’d love to see increased TV revenues meaning cheaper tickets, that simply doesn’t happen now, and it wouldn’t happen under a new model. Instead, the vast majority of those revenues go straight into players’ pockets via increased salary demands.

You can’t have it both ways. If the Premier League offers more games live, then either the overall revenues increase or decrease. If they increase, then fans, overall, pay more. If they decrease, then that would seem like a massive market intervention, the likes of which has not been made anywhere else in the world. And inevitably those revenues would benefit the bigger clubs much more.

In the end, it is surely for the Premier League to determine its own best model. They’ve had their hand forced to ensure that there are at least two bidders. But as it happens, the model they have currently actually seems to work really well for them, and they’re second only to the NFL overall TV rights revenues. With trickle-down money going beyond the Premier League, that must be positive for the game in general.

If rights get too expensive, then subscribers will stop paying.

It’ll be interesting to see Ofcom’s conclusions to this complaint, but I’d be flabbergasted if Ofcom did anything aside from throw it out.

The NFL in London

This Sunday sees the first of this year’s International Series NFL games at Wembley – the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins. This year there are once again three games, all regular season fixtures, meaning they’re not friendlies, and they count for the teams involved who want to reach the playoffs.

I went to one of the first regular games at Wembley and had a good time. I enjoy watching a bit of NFL on Sunday evenings on Sky Sports – either the live games of the week, or via Redzone which flips around all the games happening at once.

I’m also aware of the serious medical concerns about the way the game is played – the repeated concussions that seems to be linked to some early deaths. (The same is probably also true of rugby)

But I do get increasingly uncomfortable about the International Series, and I don’t go any longer because I don’t think it’s fair on the local fans. The regular season of NFL is actually a pretty tight 16 fixtures over a 17 week season. Compare and contrast with a 38 match season – 19 matches home and away – for a Premier League team. NFL teams normally have one “bye” week, and for teams that travel across the Atlantic, that’s scheduled for the week after an International Series game to allow players to properly get over any issues with jet-lag.

16 fixtures a season means only 8 home games a season before the playoffs. So a team that plays a fixture abroad is denying local fans a live opportunity to see one eighth of their games. This season that means fans in Miami, Jacksonville and Kansas City lose out on the opportunity of seeing a home game.

The NFL has to carefully balance the games they choose to send abroad by perhaps choosing less well supported teams against the need to have attractive fixtures to sell the game internationally. Because that’s what this is about. The NFL is the pre-eminent sport in the US bar none, yet it doesn’t have the international appeal that they would like it to have. The NBA is probably the most popular US domestic sport internationally. And it’s notable that they too play games around the world to build on that.

The NFL will no doubt be shouting loudly about how the games at Wembley are sold out, and yet you get the feeling that demand and supply are reasonably evenly matched.

One way to achieve a wider international appeal might be to have a UK franchise (Yes – pretty much like a Subway “franchise.” That’s the way US sports work.) And for some reason George Osborne was today entertaining NFL representatives:

So what’s my problem with all of this?

Well first of all, it’s this kind of thing that gives the Premier League big ideas. Remember the 39th game? That ideas was shut down at the time, but you wouldn’t bet against it coming back, despite the inequality of some clubs playing others three times in the course of a season (“We get to play Man City a THIRD time?”). And it’s not as though the Premier League isn’t perfectly successful already. While the NFL is still more profitable, due in large part to the size and value of the US domestic TV market, the Premier League is the next biggest, and is probably the most popular domestic league around the world. Fans who’ve never missed a game in their lives suddenly can’t get along to the 39th game of the season – because it’s in Bangkok or Los Angeles!

But my other issue is the way US sports expect local governments to support them. Teams in the US seem to shift around the country at will – normally because they’ve decided they need a bigger newer stadium, and somewhere else is willing to give over the land, provide large tax-breaks or basically pay for the building of their new home. Clubs are all (well, nearly all) privately owned, and those businessmen didn’t get where they are today worrying too much about local fans. That basically explains why a city as large as Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team.

So in a week when Transport for London decided that the capital couldn’t afford to host the Tour de France in 2017 (a decision that I tend to think was probably right, but handled utterly ineptly), I’d like to know what kind of demands the incredibly wealthy NFL would make on London to find a permanent home for an NFL team.

If the NFL wants to have a London-based team, and the backing comes from private money, then that’s fine by me. But I don’t expect to see a penny of tax-payer funding, in cash or tax-breaks, going on such an enterprise.