There’s a good piece in the FT from earlier this week (£) that examines the forthcoming kick-off the next set of UK Premier League TV rights.
The current set of rights agreements expire at the end of the 2024/5 season, and with the 2023/4 season just getting underway, it means that the time is right to go back out with rights. Traditionally the Premier League has only sold packages for three years at a time. Last time they were on the block was during the pandemic, and the previous agreements were all rolled over during that period of uncertainty.
Of course, we’re not exactly in a secure environment right now as far as economics go. The FT report suggests that any kind of increase would be seen as a win for the league, even if it comes as a consequence of offering more than the 200 matches (of a total of 380 matches) that are currently on offer.
Those remaining non-live games are largely at 3pm on Saturday which have historically not been available due to the 3pm “blackout” designed to encourage attendance at games – particularly in the lower divisions. Otherwise known as “Article 48”, it blocks live football at most levels appearing on British TV between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturdays.
For the last few years, there have been continued suggestions that this self-imposed blackout might end. The EFL were rumoured to be considering it prior to its recent rights agreement with Sky. In the event, the 3pm blackout was maintained.
My suspicion is that the Premier League could add some extra games to the various packages it offers without ending the Saturday blackout. We could see more weeks with both Friday and Monday games, or Friday and Saturday night games. Whilst other considerations come into play, in a given week, they could offer Friday 8:00pm, Saturday 12:30pm, Saturday 5:30pm, Saturday 8:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm, Sunday 4:30pm, and Monday 8:00pm. That busy TV weekend would account for 7 of the 10 fixtures! When you allow for midweek “matchdays” which can basically all be televised, you could easily see the Premier League offering a cumulative 250 fixtures a season to live TV broadcasters if they chose to.
The one thing that I’m sure will have to change is the current breakdown of rights packages.
As things stand, there are seven packages.
- Package A – 32 Saturday 12:30pm games (currently TNT Sports)
- Package B – 32 Saturday 5:30pm games (currently Sky Sports)
- Package C – 24 Sunday 2:00pm games and 8 Saturday 7:45pm games (currently Sky Sports)
- Package D – 32 Sunday 4:30pm games (currently Sky Sports)
- Package E – 24 Monday 8pm/Friday 8pm games and 8 Sunday 2:00pm games (currently Sky Sports)
- Package F – One set of Bank Holiday fixtures (Boxing Day) and one set of midweek fixtures (December) (currently Amazon Prime Video)
- Package G – Two sets of midweek fixtures (TNT Sports)
The packages that make least sense are F and G. At the time of the 2019-2022 matches being auctioned, the Premier League was very keen to get a digital partner in place. But they had to go back to market to eventually get Amazon on board.
The real issue to me is that Amazon gets all its games in a relatively brief period. Whilst those midweek games can be stretched over Tuesday – Thursday, and they can further stretch them by having early evening and later evening kick-offs, they can’t avoid the fact that games overlap. The keenest of viewer can’t watch every game live without multi-screening.
And over two short periods of time, Amazon has seen its rights come and go. Essentially, they get excited about football in December, and then forget about it for another year.
Amazon does pay proper attention to sport. Their tennis exclusivity doesn’t seem to have worked, with Amazon stepping away from the sport at the end of this year. I don’t think they’ve been helped by an interface that really doesn’t make the most of their rights. While Amazon is happy to shove its Premier League matches in your face on Boxing Day if you open Prime Video, it’s less likely to do so for some lower level hard court tournament somewhere. So the sport just gets swallowed up.
However, Amazon still pays handily for things like the summer international rugby union tours – this year a warm-up for the World Cup (live on ITV). And most interestingly, Amazon has picked up Champions League rights from next season (2024/5). It will have the first choice of Tuesday night games, with TNT Sports (née BT Sport) having the rest. This mirrors a similar deal that Amazon has in Germany. The BBC will be airing highlights of Tuesday and Wednesday games on Wednesday evenings from next season too.
In the US, Amazon has signed a ten-year agreement with the NFL for continued Thursday night games, at a cost of $1 billion.
The UK EPL packages listed above allow give the various broadcasters differing rights to allow them to pick which games they get. For example, if you win the Sunday 4:30pm rights, which is usually considered the “premium” slot of the weekend, you get “first pick” of those games around half the time. That means that those rights – Package D – are more expensive than, say, package E which has a similar number of games, but not as many top picks.
In the US, it seems that broadcasters don’t really get “picks” as part of their rights deals. It’s more “understood” that the NFL will give, say, NBC a top game for it’s primetime Sunday Night Football slot. And many commentators noted last season that the NFL was particularly unkind to Amazon offering them some really bad fixtures. $1 billion doesn’t seem to get you much in the way of choice of what games you get!
Anyway, let’s consider consider each of the broadcasters in turn, and what they might do.
Premier League football is vital to Sky. They surely need to maintain their current offering at a minimum. Losing a significant amount of football would be an existential threat to their business.
Sky has been cutting costs here and there, and while I’m sure they won’t pay more than they need to, these rights are more important than just about anything else on their roster. This season has seen a few old faces and voices disappear, with Jeff Stelling no longer in the hot-seat for Soccer Saturday, and Martin Tyler no longer their voice of football. And I wonder to what extent that was Sky just not willing to write quite the kinds of cheques they had done in the past.
I’m sure they’d be happy with basically the same packages, and any extra games that came with them.
With BT backing away, and passing on the day to day running of its sports channels to Warner Bros Discovery, it proves to be an interesting time. WBD also has to manage its ownership of Eurosport and somehow merge the two brands together. At time of writing, who gets what channels is confusing.
But although WBD has to find big savings across the board, they are still heavily invested in sport, and in the US will be bidding for NBA rights fairly soon, which are a significant part of their business.
WBD also has pan-European Olympic rights, which it bought in a way that felt similar to what NBC Universal does in the US. But because rights have to be sub-licenced to greater or lesser extents to national broadcasters in Europe, I just can’t think that WBD really gets the value it thought it would get from those rights.
But make no bones, they have to keep a good amount of Premier League games on their platform, because we’ve seen operators go under before with just Champions’ League rights.
I can’t think that Amazon wants the package that it had before. It would much rather have a week-in/week-out regular fixture that it could promote year round. It probably wouldn’t want Monday night football because teams in Europe play few games that night. If the Premier League was smart, I could see something like more Saturday night games being offered in a package, and Amazon going for that.
Some sports organisations might have thought that the digital players will just throw millions or billions without much care in the world. But none of them really do.
In the US, Apple took long hard looks at both the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package which offered out of market games, and a deal with the Pac-12 for college football. In the end, Apple stepped away from both. And this just shows that even the richest companies in the world won’t just pay silly money.
Apple could be interested, and have obviously bought US MLB rights and done a really big deal with MLS. But as the FT piece above notes, Apple’s deal have been global to date. The Premier League has not done global deals, and right now, may not be able to. They get good money from NBC Universal in the US for example, and part of that value is the exclusivity it offers.
That all said, Apple could still be interested, and sport is obviously a driver.
I’m going to discount DAZN and Viaplay. I just don’t see seem them as being around long enough.
Netflix hasn’t got the infrastructure for live, and again, I don’t think they want a UK-only offering. There’s more value, and considerably less cost, to just make behind the scenes docs at football clubs.
Sidenote: We Are Newcastle United
Amazon has a four parter behind the scenes at Newcastle United. I’ve only watched the first couple of parts, and frankly, it’s very disappointing. It has all the tropes that I hate in these kinds of things.
Firstly, it’s very subservient to the club. It’s nearly entirely told from the perspective of the current owners – owners who we should remember were considered at the very least controversial with much of the money coming from the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The documentary glosses over that almost entirely. Instead, it’s more about how the Premier League has changed its Financial Fair Play rules which doesn’t allow Newcastle to splash the cash as much as they might have liked.
I just don’t like documentaries where the subject is essentially the producer of them. It’s just not a journalistic endeavour. I don’t know enough about the documentary series’ financing to know who’s paying for what, but the deference shown by the production team to the owners makes it all a bit of a hagiography.
Secondly, it was quite evidently rushed into production fairly late in the season. While the documentary portends to show the 2022/3 season following the takeover by new owners in October 2021, it’s clear that most of the footage didn’t start to be gathered until well into 2023.
At the end of the first of four episodes, we’d already reached February 2023, and it was obvious that little footage was shot before that date. Interviews were “timeless” and other clips came from fans or archive footage of the games.
The music cues in the series are ingratiating. Even if you don’t know how a match is going, the music will tell you. It builds to a crescendo and then… goal! Newcastle have scored! I know. The music told me.
All reasons I continue to loathe a certain type of documentary that has little to no editorial independence.
Is there anyone else?
In the past, you might have looked at Facebook to do something, but I’m not sure this fits with them.
Google would be something of a wildcard. Although YouTube TV is a think in the US, where it is basically able to offer a virtualised cable bundle, the offering hasn’t really been expanded out much beyond the US – certainly not in the UK.
TikTok? Snap? Almost certainly not. The idea of watching football matches on my phone in vertical video does not compute!
In the US, Disney is trying to work out what it’s going to do with ESPN. Bob Iger has suggested in a recent earnings call that he’s looking to find a partner for it. ESPN, you will recall, makes most of its revenues via the US cable bundle, where it achieves somewhere around $9-$10 per household regardless of whether anyone in that household watches sport. That’s because so many channels are bundled into the basic tier (In the UK, sport has always been a premium add-on, meaning viewers are used to paying a premium to get sport).
But as cable viewership drops precariously and viewers “cut the cord”, it presents Disney with a headache. ESPN is still profitable, but the end is in sight. The alternative is a streaming version of ESPN, but gone are the days when 70m-100m homes got ESPN in their cable bundle for $10 each. In a streaming world, sports fans have to proactively choose to pay for sport, and that means that a smaller number of people will need to pay more to maintain the same revenues. It was recently suggested that as a standalone streamer, ESPN would need to charge closer to $35 a month for a smaller number of sports enthusiasts willing to subsribe.
And don’t forget, sports leagues expect revenues to keep going up.
So Disney is preparing for this future, less profitable, ESPN world. They’ve basically done nothing sports related in the UK to date – Welcome to Wrexham notwithstanding.
And Disney recently backed out offering streaming rights to the Indian Premier League cricket tournament because the streaming rights were so high. That cost it subscribers.
Anyway, I don’t see Disney getting involved.
Would ITV ever consider a package? I just can’t see a way that it makes financial sense. ITV does invest in sport, but I can’t see that something like a Monday night package for ITV/ITVX would make sense. But then, I wouldn’t have previously expected Channel 4 to be showing England qualifiers!
I would expect the Premier League to tweak the packages so there’s something more meaningful for Amazon to bid for. At the same time, give everyone else a few more games, and overall maintain the same broad revenues.
Time will tell.