‘We are permanently in beta’: European sports broadcasting is still in a coronavirus-forced state of reinvention

Illustration of a person riding a bike with dollar signs on the wheel spokes.

European broadcasters were among the first to welcome elite live sports back to screens, after a coronavirus-induced pause. But the sporting calendar remains log-jammed for the rest of the calendar year and that’s forced broadcasters and rightsholders to once again be more flexible — in everything from scheduling to creating more custom commercial partnerships.

Discovery-owned Eurosport lost around 4,500 hours of content and programming it had scheduled between March and August for its TV and over-the-top platforms amid coronavirus lockdowns — including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Now, for the remainder of the year, and likely into the start of 2021, the schedule is more packed than usual. In cycling, for example, more than 200 days’ worth of cycling is set to be shown in just 100 days now that the season has been condensed to later in the year — with Eurosport also airing some racing across the Eurosport app and the Global Cycling Network. (In 2019, Eurosport aired 200 days and 2,500 hours of live racing — but spread out throughout the entire year.) 

Elsewhere, the PGA Tour has announced a 2020-21 “super season” of more than 50 U.S. golfing tournaments — the most tours in a season since 1975 — which Discovery airs on its GOLFTV streaming channel in international countries outside the States. The tennis grand slams also returned this August.

Despite the jammed sporting calendar and the potential for audiences to split off between different events, Eurosport has managed to “maintain pricing, if not improve” ad rates for these sorts of “category A” assets as they return, said Mike Rich, Discovery Eurosport’s head of sports marketing solutions.

“Pricing levels get back to a premium because there’s a lot of pent up demand in the market from advertisers keen to get back and start communicating,” he added.

As with so many media companies — and particularly those who had been anticipating a windfall year of tentpole sporting action — Discovery’s business was far from immune to the effects of the coronavirus. Discovery International Networks posted a 41 year-on-year dip in ad revenue to $276 million in its second quarter. Still, Discovery CEO David Zaslav said last month the company was “cautiously optimistic” about the rest of the year. Ad markets in some European countries including Germany and Poland had recovered quicker than expected, he said.

Rich said flexibility has been key — not just in moving advertising campaigns to later in the year once sporting events resumed, or providing other ad inventory offsets — but also in building new commercial products. 

For example, with coronavirus-related safety measures limiting broadcasters’ production footprints at events, Eurosport launched a mixed reality studio in which U.S. Open tennis stars could be “teleported” to be interviewed by its presenters in London. Originally planned for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, Eurosport is speaking to advertisers about potential sponsorship integrations around the technology.

And back in May, during the break in live cycling, Eurosport and Global Cycling Network aired an entire five-stage professional virtual cycling event in partnership with advertiser Zwift, an online training platform.

From ITV — which had been due to broadcast the Euro 2020 soccer tournament — canceling its late booking fees policy until the end of 2020, to U.K. Premier League broadcaster Sky offering ad clients a fixed advertising price for the majority of the fixtures within the postponed 2019-20 season, sports broadcasters have been quick to cater to client needs during the unprecedented coronavirus disruption.

“I think broadcasters have never been more flexible than this year,” said David Mulrenan, head of investment at media agency Zenith. “I would accuse [broadcasters] before of not being flexible; now they’re generally trying to be as flexible as they can.”

Still, there’s the question of how long that flexibility can last. For one, broadcasters need to have an idea of the upcoming advertising marketplace before they can put their schedules together — and creating custom ad campaigns is a drag on resources. “They still have a business to run,” Mulrenan said. 

While such uncertainty remains — and while broadcasters can’t offer the types of atmospheres created by stadiums filled with 60,000 fans — buyers still expect trading advantages to remain available to the whole market.

“As is always the case with trading, there will be constant negotiations over every aspect of buying,” said David Counsell, head of trading at media agency the7stars. “If a term is worth fighting for, it’ll be factored in.”

For sports rightsholders, the rules are constantly being rewritten amid safety concerns and the scheduling jumble. An emergency Autumn Nations Cup tournament is being held this November, organized by Six Nations Rugby, with games set to be broadcast in the U.K. on Channel 4 and Amazon Prime Video — the tech giant’s first foray into live rugby.

Meanwhile, all of September’s 28 Premier League fixtures are being shown live on TV while fans are unable to attend the games at stadiums. (Prior to the pandemic, English football was subject to a TV “blackout” for games shown at 3 p.m. on Saturdays to encourage fans to attend matches in-person.)

“Entirely new events and combinations are needing to be invented. It really is completely unprecedented” said sports marketing consultant Tim Crow. “We are permanently in beta.”

Much of the experimentation in European sports broadcasting has taken place on digital platforms. Sky, for example, launched its “Fanzone” online viewing experience that lets people watch sports and play quizzes together with family and friends. With fans unable to experience in-venue activations, many sponsors have also ramped up their activations on social media.

“The biggest question is to what extent [digital activations are] working for the fans; to what extent is that working for the sponsors; what kind of money is it generating,” Crow said. “These are pretty significant issues and the jury’s out on the answer to all of them.”

It’s still a buyer’s market currently for sports sponsors in Europe, Crow added. Some sponsorship contracts are being sold for anything between five to 10 times lower than usual, Crow said. The softer market is attracting newer entrants from companies that have performed well in the crisis, in sectors including technology, ecommerce and healthcare. One example: Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand recently obtained high-profile media placements in the recently televised live cricket matches between England and the West Indies and England and Pakistan, including logos on the pitch and perimeter boards.

The bonanza for traditional TV rights for sports likely already peaked between 2017-19 in Europe, said independent media analyst Alex DeGroote, who added that many price-conscious, traditional European broadcasters are now in the process of refining their sports catalogs. In Germany, for example, Sky in June saved money on its renewal for the German Bundesliga in the most recent rights auction in June.

“Covid taught us the economics of the sports business model is very vulnerable,” said DeGroote. “For most traditional, pay-TV guys, this has been a really big ‘wake up and smell the coffee’-type situation.”


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