Americas Bulletin: MLSE’s record deal; ‘Money Fight’ pays out; Sportflix flops and more

This week: a blockbuster naming rights deal in Toronto, plus the UFC’s streaming debacle, a reality check for the latest ‘Netflix of sports’, ESPN joins Top Rank’s corner, IBM, Conmebol and more.

Americas Bulletin: MLSE’s record deal; ‘Money Fight’ pays out; Sportflix flops and more

The venue naming rights deal remains a hearty source of revenue for just about every professional sports organisation, but none has ever been heartier than Scotiabank’s new agreement to rename Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, home of the Maple Leafs ice hockey team and the Raptors basketball franchise.

The unprecedented deal, announced by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) on Tuesday, is worth a staggering CAN$800 million (US$639 million) over 20 years. That amounts to an average of just under US$32 million per year, a new world record for venue naming rights but one which could, given talks ongoing elsewhere, prove short-lived. 

Over on the US west coast, the Los Angeles Rams are reportedly working on a deal with AT&T on terms that are said to be similar but could now miraculously rise in light of Tuesday’s news. National Football League (NFL) executives always seem to find a way of outdoing everyone else, of course, but it stands to reason that the yearly cost of naming the Rams’ under-construction Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park - North America’s most expensive sports facility, no less - would surely eclipse Scotiabank’s annual outlay.

The UFC, meanwhile, has announced that refunds will be paid to fans who were unable to access online streams of last Saturday’s ‘Money Fight’ between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. The move comes after a torrent of complaints - and at least one class-action lawsuit - over faulty feeds and persistent technical glitches, which delayed the start of the ultra-hyped pay-per-view bout by around ten minutes.

Organisers of the unruly fist-fight claim that an unexpected late surge in demand led to blackouts in the Neulion-powered streams, affecting UFC Fight Pass customers as well as viewers who purchased coverage of the event from other providers including Showtime, Comcast and Verizon.

After initial reports of the UFC refusing to issue full refunds, Dana White, the promotion’s frontman and president, bowed to pressure and performed the customary u-turn, releasing a statement in which he insisted reimbursements would in fact be made.

In other streaming news, this Wednesday was meant to have seen the launch of Sportflix, a new Mexico-based over-the-top (OTT) subscription service whose founder, Matías Said, has spent recent months proudly touting his supposedly revolutionary offering as a true ‘Netflix of sports’. Yet after several Latin American broadcasters cried foul, alleging that this mysterious upstart who few have heard of does not have the impressive array of rights it claims to own, Sportflix was forced to put its global launch on hold.

With Mexican regulatory authorities now said to be investigating Sportflix for alleged copyright infringements, a message on the company’s website concedes that no launch can take place until the platform goes through ‘the processes necessary to be able to provide the best quality of sports streaming.’ Presumably those processes include buying up rights by legitimate means, but only time will tell.

Elsewhere, “vast and exclusive” was how ESPN and boxing promoters Top Rank described their new multi-year broadcast and streaming deal this week. Under an agreement originally reported in June, the two parties will collaborate to televise at least 18 main events in the US and Canada each year, with fight cards set to also be shown via ESPN’s upcoming OTT service.

In keeping with boxing’s penchant for hyperbole, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, called the deal “the most comprehensive and innovative media agreement in the history of the sport.” Embellishments aside, the agreement all but ends HBO’s longstanding tenure as Top Rank’s PPV partner.

Meanwhile the always forward-thinking minds at IBM are using the ongoing US Open tennis tournament to debut Watson Media, a new suite of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for near-live video production. The new business unit is headline by an innovation called Cognitive Highlights, which is now being used to create automated highlights from seven courts at the event, enabling the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to streamline its production processes and to distribute video content efficiently via its social media channels.

An IBM statement said Cognitive Highlights and other Watson Media innovations, including enhanced content searching tools and automated captioning, will be made commercially available from September, giving companies across multiple industries ‘a more comprehensive view of video than other technologies on the market.’

Finally in soccer, Paraguay is to join Argentina and Uruguay's bid to host the 2030 Fifa World Cup. News of the plan comes after Paraguay’s president Horacio Cartes, himself a former soccer administrator, met with Alejandro Domínguez, the president of South American governing body Conmebol, on Thursday to discuss the joint proposal.

Later on Thursday, Uruguay's director of sports Fernando Caceres told The Associated Press that Chile has also shown interest in joining the South American bid, raising the prospect of a first-ever four-nation World Cup. It is expected that Argentina, the largest and most developed of the four countries in terms of stadium infrastructure, would stage the majority of matches, with Dominguez saying that venues will be decided by a commission in due course.

Also this week: the UFC has announced a couple of new partnerships, signing with 7-Eleven and Kitman Labs; Major League Soccer (MLS) club Atlanta United have installed Catie Griggs as their new vice president of business operations; and Chris Lencheski, the former IRG Sports + Entertainment chief, has been named global commercial partnerships director at MP & Silva.