TOMMY MARTIN: Life on a sporting sofa about to get a lot more complicated

For a certain type of Irish sports fan,European Champions Cup rugby weekends like the one just gone will always be a reminder of when life got that bit more awkward, writes Tommy Martin.

In the prelapsarian Heineken Cup days, this fan knew where he or she stood. They had treated themselves to a Sky Sports subscription mainly to watch the Irish provinces in Europe, maybe the odd Premier League match and a bit of golf on a Sunday night.

God was in his heaven, the Sky dish was on the wall and Stuart Barnes was refusing to pronounce the ‘H’ in Thomond Park.

Everyone was happy.

Then, the world went and got complicated.

BT got pissed off at Sky barging into their broadband patch, so retaliated by setting up BT Sport, parking their tanks on Sky’s pay-TV lawn.

Then, BT tied up English rugby into a big TV deal, and one bitter legal saga later, the brave new world of the Champions Cup emerged, requiring our poor unsuspecting fan to stump up for two subscription services in order to follow the adventures of Munster and Leinster.

Needless to say, this caused ructions at home, so now on Champions Cup weekends ourfriend anxiously scans the listings wondering whether they can watch the match in peace or if they’ll need to call over to their father-in-law, who has all the channels, but prefers to watch cowboy movies on a Sunday afternoon. The pub it is.

The bad news is that things are unlikely to get more straightforward. Unbeknownst to our hero, reclining on their favourite armchair, they have become a coveted prized in a global technological battle between some of the world’s biggest corporations.

Told you things were awkward.

Last week, Amazon announced they had secured the rights to broadcast US Open tennis in the UK and Ireland, adding to the regular ATP Tour events it already offered.

Tennis fans wishing to follow the goings on at Flushing Meadows will have to subscribe to Amazon Prime, the company using sport to entice people into its online global megamarket.

While our friend is unlikely to lose much sleep over the loss of US Open tennis from regular telly, Amazon, and their fellow tech giants, are only getting started.

“These giants, these money-laden giants, are just awakening to the promise of sports, and they’re going to awaken on a global basis,” former NBA commissioner David Stern told Bloomberg recently.

A recent investor note from the tech analyst GBH Insights claimed “the next 12 to 18 months is a pivotal window for platforms like Facebook and Amazon, among others, to aggressively secure the rights to various professional sports programming”.

This ‘window’ refers to rights deals for big US sports properties, such as NFL, baseball and ice hockey, coming up for renewal, with the market bracing itself for bidding hostilities.

Amazon has already broadcast live Thursday night NFL games (as Twitter did previously), while Facebook recently agreed a deal to stream 25 Major League Baseball games, adding to a portfolio that includes MLS, Mexican soccer and pro-surfing.

Facebook also unsuccessfully bid $600m (€493m) for Indian Premier League cricket last year.

“Sports are inherently social, with the power to build and connect communities around the world,” said Dan Reed, Facebook head of global sports partnership, last year. “This aligns closely with our mission, and we feel Facebook is a natural home for sports content.”

Well, it’s better than destroying global democracy, I guess.

As yet, the big tech firms have only dipped their toes in the water. Take the recent English Premier League rights auction. Sky and BT, accepting the principle of mutually assured destruction, scaled down their bidding war to ensure they retained the current split of rights packages, but at a reduced cost, resulting in the first decline in Premier League rights values since it’s 1992 inception.

However, of more interest was what remained unsold. The Premier League parcelled up two packages of games specifically to lure bids from outside the Sky/BT duopoly, neither of which achieved the reserve price in the auction.

Amazon are believed to have bid for these matches, and the Premier League may yet bundle in clip rights and other content in an effort to do a deal with them.

While Amazon and Facebook have so far approached rights auctions with caution — unlike Sky, sport is not an existential need for them, hence the reluctance to pay over the odds — the possibility of one of the online giants winning live Premier League matches would be a milestone.

It would bring closer the day when all sports content is viewed via streaming and the idea of a single sports subscription from a satellite dish on the roof is consigned to the TV museum, along with rabbit ears and the test card.

With this in mind, the traditional TV powers are scrambling for cover. Disney, for example, have launched ESPN+ as a new streaming-only service in the US in a bid to reclaim so-called ‘cord-cutters’, who have ditched their cable sports subscription.

These Over-The-Top services (so called because they bypass clunky set-top boxes) also allow rights holders to launch their own products, with baseball’s MLB.TV and UFC’s Fightpass well-established examples.

So how does all this affect our bewildered friend, who’s having enough trouble trying to find the match as it is? What will the Irish sports TV landscape look like once all this telco-warmongering has played out?

One bit of good news is that at least some of it will be free. Not only because certain events (such as All-Ireland finals, competitive Ireland soccer matches and the Rugby World Cup) must be free under legislation, but also because rights-holders accept that the promotional value of free-to-air coverage compensates for losing some pay-TV revenue.

For example, from next season there will be one free-to-air Champions Cup match broadcast each weekend (on TV3 and Channel 4) while BT will have the rest.

“We are conscious of what happened in the last three seasons, that we lost a few people along the way as a result of the split TV rights,” said EPCR director general Vincent Gaillard, to the hearty agreement of our pal on the sofa.

Otherwise, as promised, things get complicated. Rights will be splintered across the traditional providers, the newbie tech giants and in-house OTT services.

The GAA, for example, will surely look to move its current GAA GO international offering to the domestic market at some stage, perhaps even launching an oft-mooted GAA TV offering.

The big matches would have to remain on free-to-air TV, but could future legislators view an All-Ireland final streaming free on Facebook as complying with that requirement?

Elsewhere, myriad providers will offer tailored packages to suit viewers’ needs. Our by-now-frazzled fan will have to decide which bespoke offering suits them — how about a Munster rugby season pass, with a Netflix Premier League highlights option and some Sky Sports Golf on the side? — and the days of one monolithic sports subscription drift further away.

There is one final, unlikely player in this futuristic telly power struggle. The availability of cheap and reliable streaming equipment and services like those offered by the Mayo-based company Local Streaming means that small clubs and minority sports previously under the broadcast radar can now beam their matches to anywhere in the world.

So, as our friend contemplates the complex and befuddling array of options available to watch a bit of sport, brought about by the billion-dollar machinations of tech behemoths desperate to drive profits, how ironic that they might just stick on the telly to see how the Junior Bs are getting on?


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