As football fans, we’ve become accustomed to advertising during matches. Of course, there are the ever-present side boards and flashing sponsor signs, but what has driven the growth of the sport is television revenue. Sport for the past few years has been one of the few television properties that is still primarily enjoyed live, so stations and television companies can charge a premium for advertising.
That in turn has led to an ‘arms race’ to acquire the rights to show leagues, and with football being a global game, those rights can be divided by country or region. Just this week, for example, it was announced that Turner Sports and Univision acquired the U.S. rights to show the UEFA Champions League from 2018-2021 for over £80 million.
In this bidding war over those specific rights we see the future of football viewing across the world, and how that future turns out could impact how much of the sport we see, how leagues market themselves, and if player salaries continue to rise meteorically.
Fox Sports is the current U.S. rights holders for the Champions League, and they placed a bid for 2018-2021 along with NBC and Turner, the eventual rights winners. What was missing from that list was ESPN, the dominant force in sports media in the United States. ESPN’s top executive John Skipper adores football and ESPN in the U.S. has the rights to a few competitions, yet they skipped submitting a bid for a competition they desperately needed.
Instead, the company BAMTech submitted a bid. BAMTech is a streaming service that spun out of the incredibly popular media company Major League Baseball Advanced Media. BAMTech has supplied streaming services and support for ESPN (which owns a stake in the company) and Eurosport. Instead of a tradition television station, BAMTech was essentially proposing that the major rights holder would be a streaming service who would then partner with a traditional television channel (EPSN in this case) to show games on television and streaming.
What does this mean? Even in a losing bid, we as soccer fans are one step closer to the inevitable movement away from a dependence on subscription based networks dictating what football we see and moving into a world where we have more access to the sport than ever before. Increasingly leagues are intentionally bastardizing their business model to create new ones quickly and away from their main audience. Think of Liga MX showing English broadcast of matches on Facebook Live and Twitter signing an agreement with Sky Sports to livestream their Deadline Day ramblings live.
The balance of power in who controls what football is shown is slowly moving away from media stations and more towards social media and streaming properties. In the next few years, more and more content will be available through social media networks. In addition, streaming companies will own the rights to competitions, which could open up their broadcasts to multiple channels.
Lurking outside are big non-television companies like Amazon, Alibaba, and Alphabet/Google who combine streaming capabilities, hardware, and content. In the near future, you could use your Amazon Prime account to watch France’s Ligue 1, catch an MLS match on YouTube and watch the League of Ireland on a traditional station that sublicenses that match from an Irish streaming company.
What does this brave new world mean for the actual sport? Even if the usual media players in your country are not the favourites to win the broadcast rights, these multi-national services still compete with them and drive up the costs, so leagues will still grow rich from rights fees. It also opens the door, however, to smaller clubs and leagues cutting deals to increase their visibility.
Whether it is through content they produce and push through a website (“watch our matches on YouTube”) or partner with an existing company, the chance now exists for leagues that normally would not receive coverage or viewership in a country to now access it freely. Liga MX was rarely accessible in English in the United States, for example. Showing matches in English on Facebook Live for people in the U.S. does not undercut the biggest revenue driver of Liga MX, but does allow it to grow its exposure to a market that would adopt the high quality of play.
As I mentioned in my article on how the Scottish Premier League can grow its visibility, there are prime opportunities for leagues to pick the right growth opportunities in different countries or continents and stream their matches without undercutting their current main revenue source.
We are entering a time where a football fan can watch matches from across the world, day and night. Finally, football is becoming not just the global game but the globally accessible game.