At the risk of sounding like a miserable old curmudgeon, watching sport on the television used to be a lot simpler. The BBC had Match of the Day, the Six Nations, the Olympic and Commonwealth games, Football League highlights, F1, the golf, the BDO. ITV had Formula One, they had the Champions League, the Rugby World Cup, and they shared the rights for the Euros and the World Cup. Channel 4 covered horse racing, Channel 5 had their regular offering on a Thursday night and then Sky covered boxing, the PDC, and most live football.
Everyone had a role in that old system, and you knew what was where. It was simple – if you had Sky you had access to basically everything, but without it you still had the big things and usually highlights of what you did not have.
Throughout that system there were always peculiar rivals. Setanta chanced their arm and got bitten quite badly, ESPN the same. BT Sport are the most recent in that mould and they’ve appeared to find a firm foothold, spending big to bring in the Champions League, some of the Premier League, Premiership Rugby, Champions Cup Rugby, and of course, the Ashes.
Now, I am someone who has always loved sport and loved watching it. Indeed, watching it and analysing from the comfort of my armchair/sofa/living room floor (delete as appropriate), made up for my genuine lack of sporting ability. You could look on the TV guide and work out what events were on at what times and think about what things there were to look forward to when you came home from school or had time at the weekend. Those halcyon days before university where weekends were entirely available and you actually had no issue with doing nothing all day because you were mostly carefree.
I acknowledge that the coverage arrangements I cited above are quite old now. A lot of those things have shuffled round or been split up – ITV now, under the expert presenting of Ed Chamberlin, cover the horse racing and share the Six Nations with the BBC. Channel 4 cover Formula One alongside Sky. All of that is fine, but the rest has mostly gone. The drive for greater money in sport has seen a lot of things go behind a paywall as broadcasting corporations see sport as an area where they can cut costs. The Football League highlights are now on Quest, a channel that usually only shows reruns of Salvage Hunters, whilst the BDO has only had TV coverage this year through FreeSports.
The arguments have been made at length before that if sport isn’t on terrestrial television, children won’t see it and therefore won’t take an interest in it. Think what you will of that – it’s been an issue for a long time, especially with regards to the English cricket team.
Now though, the face of sports broadcasting is changing entirely.
In the last year, the following streaming services have emerged on the scene: DAZN, ESPN+ and Eleven Sports. These are all over-the-top (OTT) services that allow customers to register for accounts that have monthly fees, much like Netflix.
DAZN is by far the biggest, offering unique streaming arrangements in various countries. Their website shows that they offer more than 8,000 live sporting events a year, including live coverage of the Champions League and Europa League in Austria, Germany, Japan and Canada. They are the host broadcaster of Japan’s J.League and signed blockbuster deals this year with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing stable and Bellator MMA. DAZN is also the most expensive of the bunch, coming in at $9.99 per month.
ESPN+ is an extension of the main ESPN channels in the USA, costing $4.99 per month. It offers a lot of things previously included on ESPN3, as well as a lot of new original magazine shows, but its main focus is boxing. By and large reports on the service seem to be good, with the interface and reliability improving as kinks are ironed out.
Eleven Sports is the strange one. Based in the UK and owned by Leeds United supremo Andrea Radrizzani, the firm is led day-to-day by Marc Watson, a former CEO at BT TV. They have made a splash in the UK and Ireland in recent months by securing the rights to La Liga, Serie A and certain Golf tournaments, whilst they will provide coverage of the UFC from January 2019. Their package costs £5.99 per month.
It must be said that these services are mostly focused on the US market but their overall rise reflects a broader social trend. For want of a better term, they reflect the needs of “Generation Netflix.” People our age want to pick and choose what they watch and when, and the logic is that this principle will extend to sport. The notion of sitting in front of the TV and watching what’s scheduled to be on is becoming less and less the norm, instead we peruse boxsets on iPlayer or choose a film – the possibilities are growing all the time. Being able to watch live sport on the move is likewise increasingly important and a range of streaming apps that cover different things in many ways satisfies that need.
Other forces are also entering the market. Where traditional players are losing their might, providers like Amazon Prime have come in. They covered the US Open and whilst people moaned about the fact it was on there, the quality of the stream was very good and the tournament still had a lot of buzz. Beyond Amazon, you have the launch of iFollow in the UK, a tool that allows football fans to watch 3 pm kick-offs online, something prohibited on televisions under current UK TV licencing laws. Providers like Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook Watch are also looking to expand their horizons and pick up what they can.
The big question for all of these services: will the new model work? That remains to be seen, but combat sports will be the sports that let us know as they are the ones to take the proper plunge and stick their all into these services. Bellator’s TV ratings in the US have been on the wane all year, so a newer model makes sense to get them some buzz. With a number of interesting fighters on their books, it will be interesting to see how they do on DAZN and whether it actually offers them a direct form of exposure to casual fans.
It’s a similar story for boxing – in the same week that DAZN ran their first big boxing event, Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title defence against Alexander Povetkin, HBO, the long-time face of boxing in America, announced that the sport would be cut from future programming. These changes are a real shock to the system for many and if the new model works, then boxing and MMA will see their fan bases grow and their stars get more exposure. If streaming like this proves to be a big bubble that bursts in a couple of years’ time, then those sports will have to pick up the pieces.
The next round of TV rights for the marquee sporting events, like the Premier League and Champions Cup Rugby in the UK, and the NBA, NFL, and MLB in the USA, will likely see the current big players have to work even harder to keep what they have with more players in the mix. That said, some of the smaller packages are likely to end up on less conventional platforms, and those platforms can then do what they want to modify coverage to attract new fans. What will define how these services work in the broader sense, though, will be the financial implications. Whereas before a Sky package or a Virgin Media bundle that incorporated internet access in your home, a TV set-top box and landline phone connection, was a simple way to ensure sport access to most things, people will now need to set up an account for every relevant streaming service. Whilst a lot of sport in the UK is still on offer through the usual channels, what’s happening in America should serve as an indication of where the market is going.
Take me for an example. I’m a big rugby fan and therefore want to maintain my BT Sport subscription. I also am an avid fan of the UFC and Serie A, meaning that Eleven Sports is going to be a must for 2019. That’s already in excess of £20 per month, without taking into consideration things like Netflix and other similar services before even thinking about living expenses. As a student obviously choices need to be made, but that’s the same for many working people as well. Cuts will have to come somewhere and these are luxuries – the response could be more illegal streaming, more people going to the pub to watch things collectively, or just a decline in viewership for things because they’re not accessible anymore.
For something like sport that thrives on getting bums on seats and eyes on the product, keeping the channels of accessibility open has to always a top priority. I don’t know where things are going in terms of sports broadcasting, but there’s a lot of unknowns and new apps that I need to download to get my fix, and I certainly miss the good old days.
Simpler times. Such simpler times.