The new Premier League TV rights auction for the UK has just got under way, with bids due in at the end of January, and the results announced in early February. Such are the scale of these rights now, that the announcement tends to be made to accommodate the stock market. If a PLC is spending several billion pounds on something, this is “of note.”
Where do we stand, and where are we likely to go?
At first glance, there really doesn’t feel like an enormous growth left in the UK market. Last time around, the value of UK live rights rose a colossal 70%, from £3bn to £5.1bn!
This increase in cost didn’t come without consequences. Subscribers to both Sky and BT have seen increases in their subscriptions, while Sky in particular (who’s packages increase the most in value), has cut costs elsewhere, reducing some coverage – notably tennis.
But different players have different needs from Premier League football.
As the bid from 21st Century Fox for complete ownership of Sky continues to navigate regulatory hurdles, Rupert Murdoch himself is selling out to Disney. While the Disney deal itself will need to overcome any US regulatory concerns, the general feeling is that it will get through unscathed (While it shouldn’t involve the US President, Trump is reportedly more concerned about the future of Fox News than anything else, and Murdoch keeps ownership of that). Meanwhile, the prospect of Sky News being a Disney property rather than a 100% Murdoch owned, is probably more palatable to more people. The separation organisationally from the unsavoury practices at Fox News is probably helpful too. There perhaps remains a question of when the various deals go through, so that waving the Sky deal through before the details of the Disney deal have been finalised might be problematic.
But returning to the Premier League, for Sky the rights are an important – not to say critical – part of its overall offering. Sports also remain an important part of Disney’s offering.
ESPN has for many years been a substantial revenue generator, but of late it has began to suffer. So-called “cable cutters” don’t all want ESPN. It had been regularly bundled into all basic cable offerings, taking a substantial share of a household’s monthly cable bill, regardless of whether that household actually wanted to watch sport. As such, it became a cash cow. That’s still the case, but as younger subscribers choose their digital offerings in a piecemeal way – Netflix here, HBO Now there – ESPN was beginning to miss out. It was losing overall subscribers, and has of late announced a series of redundancies to cut costs.
In part to bolster that, Disney has picked up Fox’s regional sports networks as part of the Fox acquisition, qne they provide very solid ratings revenues.
The problem with all sports for broadcasters is that in large part, they are not actually owned by the networks. Every few years, the rights are put out to tender, and the rights owners tend to expect big increases.
That extends from the Premier League to the NFL, the IOC, the ICC, the NBA and so on. Sport has become disproportionately important because for the most part, the value is in live rights, and an audience that advertisers love being unable to skip the built-in advertising.
Sky needs the Premier League, and it has to pull out all the stops to maintain the crown jewels of the packages offered. But at some level there will be a red line beyond which it doesn’t make sense to bid.
BT is in a slightly different position, as it built its TV offering as much as anything to support its broadband proposition. This has developed further when BT trumped Sky to buy Champions’ League and Europa League rights. Unlike previous minority rights holders of Premier League football, BT was clearly a serious player with serious cash available. By offering sport initially free, and later at a discount to its broadband customers, it was able to stem the flow to other broadband providers.
In TV terms, BT does still feels like a smaller player in the wider marketplace.
There may be a slight shift at BT now, as it develops a stronger TV offering built around IP delivery, but the company is really in the business of running wires and cables into your home.
Sky and BT Making Up
Interestingly, Sky and BT have recently reached an agreement to properly wholesale their packages to each others’ customers. While BT Sport has been available to Sky customers since launch, viewers had to deal separately with BT to view the channel on their Sky box. The new agreement will make it easier for Sky customers to add BT Sport to their existing Sky package, buying it directly through Sky. In return, BT will make available Sky’s Now TV offer via its own BT TV platform. That effectively provides a mechanism for BT to offer the full range of Sky Sports channels through its platform.
Commentators have suggested that the pair have reached this agreement in part to mitigate the chances of the pair outbidding one another in the upcoming auction. While I doubt they’d collude (which may be illegal anyway), it’s likely that the status quo would suit both parties just fine. The pair do potentially face some opposition however…
Sidenote: One curious consequence of the Disney takeover of Fox (and in turn Sky), is that BT currently has a deal with ESPN for much of its US sports programming. In essence this leaves Disney with at least a small foot in both camps.
Note: This is based on published information. Precise details of first picks is likely to appear in the tender documents which aren’t ordinarily made publicly available.
Under this contract, we will be up from 168 matches to 200 of the 380 total Premier League fixtures being broadcast live on UK TV.
Previously, there were five packages of 28 games, and two packages of 14 games. BT won the rights to 28 Saturday 1730 fixtures, as well as a further 6 midweek matches and 8 Saturday matches. Sky won all the remaining fixtures.
This time around the seven packages are built somewhat differently, with Saturday evening primetime being added into the mix, as well as some intriguing midweek packages.
Package A: 32 matches on Saturdays at 12:30
Package B: 32 matches on Saturdays at 17:30
Package C: 24 matches on Sundays at 14:00 and eight matches on Saturdays at 19:45
Package D: 32 matches on Sundays at 16:30
Package E: 24 matches on Mondays at 20:00 or Fridays at 19:30/20:00 and eight matches on Sundays at 14:00
Package F: 20 matches from one Bank Holiday and one midweek fixture programme
Package G: 20 matches from two midweek fixture programmes
Packages A and B are the same as before, but increase from 28 to 32 games. Package C had previously been exclusively 2pm fixtures, but now has eight primetime Saturday night games.
Package D tends to be the most valuable package, in the past containing the majority of first picks (in other words, broadcasters can put the biggest matches in this slot, other considerations such as police advice notwithstanding).
Package E now gets some 14:00 Sunday games as well as Monday and Friday night football.
But, beyond an overall increase in fixtures and the Saturday night slot opening up, it’s packages E and F that see the biggest changes. Previously these were a mix of mid-week and Bank Holiday fixtures throughout the season. But under this auction they will account for four individual programmes. For example, when there’s a full midweek fixture list, all games are usually played on a Tuesday and Wednesday. But by offering rights to all these games in a given week, any one viewer can only really watch two of them, since multiple games take place simultaneously. So while there are 40 games in total across the two packages, there are potentially only 8 opportunities for a viewer to watch a game, with the other 32 happening during one of those 8 timeslots
So while it’s technically innovative, you wouldn’t expect this package to go for a vast amount of money compared with the others. It’s fewer games than other packages for starters. But it also seems squarely aimed at getting streaming services involved.
Both Sky and BT would be able to offer this choice – they both did or do similar things with Champions’ League group stages. But a decent number of the games are not fixtures a broadcaster might ordinarily choose to televise – think of those matches towards the end of an average edition of Match of the Day.
But if this is aimed at getting digital players involved, it would seem to require an awful lot of marketing for just 8 opportunities to watch on as few as 7 individual days.
The Premier League can only really show all its fixtures in midweek slots because there’s a blackout during Saturdays at 3pm to support the wider football world. But I wonder whether by 2022, we’ll see every Premier League game played outside the 3pm Saturday window? That would enable all matches to be shown live, and perhaps a 2pm Sunday slot having the majority of fixtures.
Potential New Entrants
A bit like the broadcasters, different digital groups have different reasons to use video. Are they looking to increase dwell time on their services, are they looking to grow their user numbers, or are they looking for something else altogether?
Sport isn’t out the question with streaming services, bringing with it loyal fans. But it also brings issues with having a robust technical backbone, and excludes those who don’t have solid broadband.
Furthermore, only UK rights are being sold. While the UK remains an important market for most of the big players, being able to offer streaming to multiple territories is preferable to global operators. The Premier League, of course, sees greater value in selling international rights in different territories to different operators rather than bundle them all together.
What is certain is that the Premier League is desperate for one or more of these companies to enter the market. If Sky and BT would be prepared to stick with the status quo and only offer modest increases in their bids compared with last time, it would take a third party entering to push bids upwards. The only possible existing TV group who might be persuaded would be Discovery via its Eurosport channel. But it’s just not clear that the rights make sense for that brand. While Discovery has spent big on the Olympics, it doesn’t have much of a UK footprint at all in football beyond various secondary UEFA and FIFA competitions.
Facebook notably did bid for Indian Premier League cricket rights for a large number of territories, but the deal the IPL eventually did with Star India (also being sold to Disney as part of the Fox deal) included global streaming rights, so they lost out.
You wouldn’t count out Facebook from bidding for Premier League football, but the challenge for them is that these are UK rights. While Premier League football potentially offers increased dwell time on the platform, assuming that the games are broadcast free to viewers, there’s relatively little in it for Facebook in terms of gaining new subscribers.
However Facebook is investing in premium video, and they have money to burn, so a bid isn’t out of the question.
YouTube has bought sports rights in the past – cricket immediately springs to mind. Google is constantly evolving its offerings, with a rumoured reversioning of its music offering in both audio and video terms, due to be launched soon.
As with Facebook, Google doesn’t face any problems in being able to afford rights, but it’s not clear what it really gains for them. YouTube is already phenomenally successful, and Google’s reach is nearly complete.
Again, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t bid, it’s not entirely clear why they would.
Apple is also making a play to develop a premium video offering, but it hasn’t as yet entered the sports arena. It’s platform is much less developed in the UK, and if made available exclusively via Apple apps or devices, any bid would curtail audiences a bit.
It seems much less likely that Apple would bid compared with other digital players.
Amazon may be interested. Their model is slightly different, and they’ve not yet achieved the prestige in the video marketplace that others have. They’re certainly jealous that Netflix has developed stronger video brands than they have. The recent acquisition of The Lord of the Rings rights shows their ambition in this area – spending $250m on the rights alone to make a series, before they spend a single cent on production.
Notably they have now bought a range of tennis rights, outbidding Sky for the men’s ATP tour rights, as well as buying US Open rights. However we should be careful here. The entire ATP rights package cost Amazon less than Sky pays for a single Premier League fixture.
Tennis feels like a toe in the water for Amazon. They also stream Thursday night NFL games – something Twitter did previously, but outside the US you may not have noticed (games happen after 1am local time in the UK, and 2am in central Europe). It should also be remembered that Thursday night NFL is the least valuable package, and Amazon shares the rights with CBS and NBC in broadcast.
Amazon certainly has the technology to offer streaming, both via its Amazon Prime Video platform, as well as Twitch, potentially allowing it to reach a younger audience.
As such, it feels the likeliest bidder of all the digital platforms, even if the strange nature of packages F and G don’t really seem to make sense for anybody.
Twitter has played with live streaming, offering everything from an alternative election night programme with Buzzfeed, to eSports and, as mentioned above, some NFL games last season.
Of all the digital players, it feels like Twitter perhaps has the most to gain in terms of getting new sign-ups from something like this. However it’s not trivial to get Twitter video onto your TV set.
As a company, Twitter is a scale lower than other digital businesses (see also Snapchat, who I’ve not even considered here), and so cost may be an issue.
This feels to be the least likely digital bidder. Their business has not been built on sport, and as mentioned above, the real problem with sport is its lack of repeat-ability. If you’re paying £10m+ for a property, then they want to sweat that asset over a number of years. The value of a live match is a one-time thing, and really doesn’t seem to fit their model.
We’ll find out the answers to all these questions in a couple of months’ time. Would the Premier League leave Sky and/or BT without games or a severely reduced offering? If the money was right, then yes. How would pubs show games “broadcast” on Twitter? Someone’s phone hooked up to a TV set?
Just because these businesses have the cash, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense for them to bid for rights. There has to be a reason. It might be adding value to a wider package such as Amazon Prime; it might be growing the number of users, or increasing a site’s dwell time. But many of these services are doing quite nicely already.
I can’t see BT and Sky increasing their bids at anything near the level they’ve previously managed. The value just isn’t there. Sky has managed to diversify its offering with originals and exclusive deals with providers like HBO. Renewing that HBO deal feels almost as important as doing another Premier League deal.
In the end, it’s probably best not to second guess these things too much. All will become clearer in February when consumers will discover just how many subscriptions they need to get the full range of Premier League football on television.