A Fragmented Future? English Football Broadcast Rights and the Challenge of Google and Apple

Google and Apple may not exactly be the first names that spring to mind when looking for alternatives to challenge Sky’s dominance of sports broadcasting in Britain, but it should be no surprise that two of the giants of the tech and online world are eyeing up sport as a way to lure consumers into their new offerings. It was, after all, a key part of Rupert Murdoch’s strategy as he battled to establish his satellite broadcasting operation in Britain at the start of the 1990s.

In the past few days, there have been rumours that Google and Apple are both considering a bid for the broadcasting rights to the Premier League when they come up for renewal later this year. They remain just that – rumours – and it seems likely that Apple won’t bid, while there is nothing to indicate yet that Google may consider making a sizeable investment in English football broadcast rights. But with both companies expected to move further into the TV and broadcasting industry, it does show other leagues and sports that it may be worth thinking outside the traditional broadcasting methods. Indeed, for some, it may be the only way to grow and survive.

Under the current broadcast rights deal, Sky is paying around £1.6bn to show 115 live Premier League games per season, with ESPN broadcasting the final package of games. Under a deal with the European Commission, the Premier League had to ensure that the six packages were divided between more than one broadcaster. That deal has now expired, although the Premier League is unlikely to risk another legal battle by awarding all games to Sky (or, more unlikely, another broadcaster).

The amounts of money involved are quite staggering and few broadcasters can afford them. Even lower down the English league pyramid structure, where rights are nowhere near as expensive, the cost of producing live games or even highlight shows are still high enough to be questionable in terms of cost-effectiveness. Due to budget cuts, the BBC opted not to show Football League highlights during the recent festive period, despite a full set of fixtures, while in non-League Premier Sports opted to pull out of screening Darlington versus Barrow last season rather than risk sending a crew to a game that stood a possibility of being called off.

And yet with the growth of the internet and the willingness over the past few seasons for broadcasters to snap up as many sport and football rights as possible, fans have been treated to a proliferation of football across a range of platforms to the extent that it’s almost expected that non-Premier League games and highlights will be if not free, then at least readily available. Never mind that football has had its fingers burnt twice in the past with the collapse of both ITV Digital and Setanta, the expectation is there.

This, however, overlooks the fact that if non-Premier League football was thought to be profitable for broadcasters, they would be rushing to show more of it. Ratings for ESPN’s foreign league coverage are low in the UK, while the expense involved for lower league games is high. That none of the commercial broadcasters other than Sky have made a serious play for these live matches in recent years tells its own story. Only the BBC, with its public service commitments, could make a sensible argument for broadcasting lower league football, and with their proposed Delivering Quality First cuts – especially around local radio commentaries – even Auntie appears to be scaling back lower league coverage.

This, then, is the state of football broadcasting in the UK at the moment. Rights for live Premier League games are so expensive to bid for that only a small handful of broadcasters – Sky, ESPN and, given their recent acquisitions of French rights, probably al-Jazeera – are able to offer the vast sums required, while the lower leagues are too expensive to produce to make a serious challenge to Sky for the rights (or, in the case of Premier Sports and their deal to broadcast non-League football, hardly enriching for the clubs involved).

Which is why looking outside of the traditional mediums could be seen as a good thing. For the Premier League, should Apple and Google, two companies with the financial clout to challenge Sky, decide to bid then it could herald the much-needed shake-up of the current near-monopoly on top flight rights. For lower leagues, exploring non-linear options are, quite simply, a must if they are to at least stand a chance of reaching existing fans and new audiences. A new generation of internet connected app-friendly televisions are on the way powered by familiar OS and Android platforms. While it may be a tad hyperbolic to proclaim these will change the way you watch TV forever, we’re already seeing the current generation of IPTVs having a slight shift on the way we consume our television. The world of streaming, tablets, phones and TV is amalgamating as one.

Of the realistic options, Apple appear to be the most curious of those rumoured. The tech company already has a deal in place with Sky to show archive footage through iTunes, while Sky’s successful Sky Go mobile and tablet apps currently offer a slick Premier League broadcasting experience on the iPhone and iPad.

Bidding for expensive UK Premier League rights would also represent something of a risk for Apple, given football’s standing in the US, although globally, given the Premier League’s appeal, it could prove to be a sound piece of business, especially in the long term if it secures the US rights to the competition given the growing appeal of the “EPL” on that side of the Atlantic. But any movement on this, if it were to materialise, would as likely depend on the offerings of Apple TV, how it develops and whether it becomes a mass-market product.

The search giant Google, however, would seem to be much more of a natural fit for broadcasting rights. They already own YouTube, which signed a two year deal to broadcast the Indian Premier League cricket. Under YouTube’s stewardship, the channel racked up a cool 50 million views. In comparison, current rights holder Times India’s channel, which is produced in conjunction with Google, has just under 15 millions views. The appetite and familiarity with well known sporting brands is, it appears, present online and is not discouraged by a non-traditional media company owning the rights.

IPL YouTube

For Google, the infrastructure (including Android), not to mention the money, is in place, although one complication may be the ongoing copyright dispute between the Premier League and YouTube. Google have also recently shed many extra projects as they get behind their core offerings (while continuing to innovate), and the video Hangouts on Google+ raise an interesting possibility of shared viewing experiences between friends or fans of clubs through special individual channels. There are so many possibilities for sports broadcasting on Google – be it TV, apps, online or social network – it would be easy to spend a whole article speculating on what these may be, but suffice to say the barriers offered by traditional broadcasters would be broken down should the leagues be willing to do so – itself a big sticking point.

It is also worth, briefly, considering Facebook. The social behemoth may not have been mentioned thus far but they have already shown that, on a smaller scale, they can very competently handle sports broadcasting. Budweiser and the FA’s streaming of the Extra Preliminary FA Cup Qualifying tie between Ascot United and Wembley FC may have been a one-off novelty but was a smooth, entertaining and enjoyable experience. Liking Budweiser’s page was a small price to pay for a professional broadcast and the online viewing figures of 27,000 were more than even ITV4 gets for some Europa League matches.

Facebook broadcast of Ascot United

Facebook’s goal of being at the heart of everybody’s lives would fit with acquiring sports rights (especially as the majority of work making it broadcast-ready would probably be done by the partners). It is not hard to envisage live streaming of games through the social network or via the Facebook app on your TV. Again, the restrictions here are unlikely to be on Facebook’s part but from the Premier League or any other body selling their live broadcast rights.

For the Premier League, they have the luxury of picking and choosing, such is the strength and popularity of the product they are selling. Whether they’d be willing to relinquish their grip and allow any sort of fragmentation from the new media companies potentially interested in their rights is another question. For the lower leagues, it is up to them to seize the initiative.

What would the Football League be worth if the rights were sold to Facebook or Google? Would more people be inclined to subscribe or sign-up to an app on a new generation IPTV? Could revenue be raised through pay-per-view subscriptions as well as longer subscriptions? Would lower league or non-League games attract higher audiences if they were streamed via the official page on Facebook or via YouTube? And if these games were readily available to the casual lower league fan, what impact would this have on attendances? None of these questions are easy or even possible to answer, but need to be asked or considered, at the very least.

Or could we yet see a situation where it is not the league who negotiate the deal for the rights, but an enterprising club? Think of the individual rights that are negotiated by La Liga clubs in Spain, but then fragmented and offered to a range of platforms and tech or social companies, not the traditional broadcasters.

Already the individual leagues risk being left far behind when it comes to mobile or TV app development, if they have even considered it. Broadcasters and other companies know that mobile viewing – be it on a phone or tablet – will provide a significant market in the future. Whether the leagues are following suit is debatable.

We could potentially reach a point where an enterprising club with an abnormal fan base for the division they are in – say Luton or Bradford, for example – decide to cut out the middle man and go direct to Google and stream through the official Luton Town YouTube channel and offer special Luton Town viewing hangouts with post-match viewer-engaged content via Hangouts on Google+. Or perhaps the game will be streamed via the official Bradford City Facebook page and IPTV app, with all the social benefits that this brings, not to mention the marketing advantages such a channel offers to the club.

And if these lower league clubs are successful, the bigger clubs will almost certainly want their slice of the action. Perhaps we may face a future where you purchase the Facebook app but opt to watch through the dedicated Manchester City channel rather than the main broadcast, or a host of other fragmented options, while chatting to other fans of the same persuasion during the match. Fanciful? Perhaps. But you can already see the foundations of virtual stadiums just through this method, and this probably only discusses a small part of what could be achieved.

But this does get ahead of what would currently be required. For both Football League and Premier League clubs, there would need to be a majority vote to abandon the collective agreement on income from these football rights. To do so would be hugely controversial and go against the very fabric of the game in Britain. Yet with governing bodies often some way behind clubs and technology in both adoption and thinking, the question is how prepared clubs would be to miss out if a new route makes them more money.

Certainly the aforementioned Manchester City are already leading the way, digitally. Their website is rightly lauded as one of the best in the country and their YouTube channel is both slick and engaging. Should opportunities open up for exploiting online viewing, it is clubs such as City who are likely to be at the forefront. The infrastructure and planning is in place, it is just the league itself that prevents them from maximising their online potential in terms of use of live broadcasts and highlights.

Man City YouTube Channel

Given football broadcast rights are complicated enough as it is, perhaps we may see another layer added for tablet or TV apps rather than channels accessed through a browser. Perhaps it is these clubs may look to exploit separately rather than collectively. Could online prove an exception and break the collective agreement? Technologically, there are many attractive and exciting reasons for doing so. Legally it may prove more different, and morally it does not sit comfortably with the idea of keeping the game competitive (and would, as likely, provoke a similar reaction to Liverpool’s executive Ian Ayre raising the notion of clubs individually negotiating their international broadcast rights).

Whether these changes in technology and broadcast viewing habits would improve top flight football, or simply serve to make it more tribal and take it further away from its roots is an another question, although one you feel the clubs and league won’t worry to much about if it proves successful, even if they are unable to negotiate individual rights. In an online medium very much concerned with openness and equality, any success in this area could serve to make the bigger clubs even richer. For the Premier League it’s a welcome addition to have on the table. For the smaller clubs, it may become a necessity.

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