Since its launch in five countries last year, Eleven Sports Network has met the demands of a diverse range of markets through a business model which allows the leadership in each country to develop their own approaches. SportsPro speaks to its top executives in Belgium, Poland, Taiwan and Singapore to find out how this international enterprise is seeking local solutions.
By Eoin Connolly
On its launch in 2015, much of the speculation that surrounded Eleven Sports Network concerned the man behind it. As the co-founder of the MP & Silva agency, Andrea Radrizzani had been one of the foremost figures in the international media rights market. Now he was moving to the other side of the playing field: his motivations, and his expectations, drew considerable intrigue.
A year on and Radrizzani’s interests have broadened further with his appointment as president of Baofeng Sports International, following the sale of MP & Silva to the Baofeng Group and financial services company Everbright in May. His previous venture has not been forgotten, however: after investing heavily in soccer, and collecting rights in selected markets to the likes of Formula One and the National Football League (NFL), Eleven is now established in Belgium, Poland, Luxembourg, Singapore and Taiwan.
With its operation in such a diverse collection of territories, what is striking about Eleven now is its devolved business model. There are recurring themes to the package in each country. In May, the group signed a multi-year deal with digital video technology specialist NeuLion to create an over-the-top (OTT) live, catch-up and on-demand video service, Eleven Sports, across all of its territories. Elements of its strategy also recur: there is a common emphasis on localised content, social media outreach and the widest possible levels of distribution.
Otherwise, though, Eleven Sports Network operates as exactly that: a network. Its different points are connected but in many ways act independently. Danny Menken, the former Eurosport executive who joined Eleven at launch from his role as chief executive of Infostrada Sports Group, now serves as the group managing director, with oversight of all global activities. In each country, other leaders work with a considerable degree of autonomy.
“I joined Eleven a year ago, and my main goal was to get the distribution deals going but also to get the team in place,” says Anouk Mertens, Eleven managing director for Belgium. “That’s very important because if you look at our local structure, we have a marketing guy, we have social media people, we have our editor in chief, we have all the journalists who do and edit all the matches. But it’s also very important to keep close to what’s happening in the market, because every market is different and you have big properties that work in every country but there’s some that are more important.”
Each national unit has a “separate P&L”, Mertens explains, and works up its “own business plans”, which are then discussed at a group level.
“Once we get approval on that,” she adds, “we try to work on our local strategies as well as we can. That also means that we look for our own people in the market, we define which partnerships are important – for example, we have done deals with all the local online news sites, where they show highlights from our leagues and from our shows as well.”
According to Poland managing director Krzysztof Świergiel, there is ample collaboration between Eleven teams in each country, despite the many deep differences in each market.
“We try to share as much as possible in best cases; on best experiences,” he says. “We are in a constant contact; there is a direct exchange of information between the employees in several different countries. On top of this all operations are consolidated via our headquarters and through this consolidation we’re also able to exchange our experiences.
“I can tell you that generally speaking all the markets are very, very different in terms of the model we are using, and also in terms of the media landscape, the habits of our viewers from country to country are also different. Nevertheless there is a lot to be shared, especially in terms of marketing and support, communication, and this is what we are very definitely doing in terms of sharing our clips we produced; if something is produced for Poland it could also be shared with other countries, there are some clips which were produced and localised for Poland and there are some circumstances they could be used for other territories after some localisation.
“We share also our ideas regarding how to push our OTT products on a regular basis.”
Eleven in Belgium
“I think Belgium is a rather particular market compared to other ones,” says Mertens. “It’s a fairly small country and you have, basically, two main languages, which makes it a complex market.
“In Belgium, everything we do, we do in two languages. Which means that if we do 1,500 games, basically we do 3,000 because we do everything double.”
Even allowing for Belgium’s regional split between French and Flemish Dutch speakers, Eleven puts a heavy accent on localised content in the country. Unsurprisingly for a European market, soccer is comfortably the most popular sport for broadcast here and Mertens highlights premium international rights that carry a national interest. “What we see is that the attractiveness of the international leagues is driven in a big part by a local presence,” she says, pointing to the importance to Eleven’s audiences of Belgian players plying their trade in Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, France’s Ligue 1 and the English FA Cup.
Other major properties in Eleven’s Belgian portfolio – like the rights to the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) – address “some very specific and very motivated, more niche audiences, but still very broad audiences”. Even in those cases, Belgian interest is generated where possible – either through programming or the purchase of complementary rights.
“You specifically start looking for local things as well,” Mertens adds. “If there is the Belgian Bowl, the American football association in Belgium, we’ll do something with them because it really ties in with NFL and with the local community.”
Mertens explains that “one of the most important things” Eleven did after its first year of operation was to move on from an editorial outsourcing deal with Mediapro and bring those activities in-house. “They did a great job in the first year,” she says, “but when you start moving forward and producing that much content locally, it felt like we needed to have it integrated in one local team. So we recently moved to one new office in Antwerp, where we have the management team, the social media team, the marketing team and the editorial team in one place, which means that we are now working on a lot of new local shows but also shows that are more 360 programmes.
“They are on our channels, but also we put them on Facebook, we have YouTube, we have Instagram, so you have the whole team contributing in any form of communication – be it on air or on social media. That was an important part, to get a good editor in chief here, select the right journalist to do the new shows we’re making, to get good names as analysts and co-commentators, but also to get our own marketing and social media people here.
“We have digital editors that are working every weekend here on Facebook. If something happens in a game you see highlights of it immediately on our Facebook site. So we’re really trying to communicate to the fans directly and regularly.”
That staffing change has also allowed Eleven to pursue its goal of becoming “very much a Belgian network”, and one that reflects the country’s regional differences.
“If we do Eleven United, which is a modular review show of the good things that are happening in the market, then we do it in French and in Dutch,” Mertens explains. “If you look at a show like that, it’s not just that you take all the international feeds and you combine them together and have a highlights show. What we do is that we always try to look at the local angle.”
Those efforts are aided by access to local production facilities. “At our office we have edit cells, we have voice booths, we can show eight simultaneous live matches from the office if we want,” Mertens says. “The playout is centralised in Barcelona, but all local edits and magazine voiceovers are done locally.”
Eleven sought a platform-neutral approach in Belgium and has now secured carriage deals with all of the major operators. The process was not without its challenges in a country where media and telecoms groups had been used to buying exclusive content and using that to tie consumers to a single means of distribution.
“Of course,” Mertens recalls, “the hurdle we needed to take was to talk to the cable companies and IPTV providers and say, ‘We’re going to change this and we’re going to get carriage on your network.’
“So for Proximus, we were a partner in the market from day one. That relationship went very well because they had a different strategy in saying, ‘Well, we distribute Netflix as well – why shouldn’t we distribute Eleven?’ For the cable companies it was slightly more difficult but, in any case, we ended up finding a win-win and having our great offering on their network so their viewers are happy as well.”
Going forward, Mertens reveals, Eleven’s focus will be on expanding the reach of its OTT product, not only by developing apps for services like Apple TV but also by serving “an audience that is either just interested only in La Liga, or is only an NBA fan, and through our OTT platform we can also offer them the choice to just watch those games they want”.
“It’s kind of a Netflix model,” she adds, “it’s very easy to subscribe and step in and step out whenever you want. That’s something where I think there is still an unserved audience that we are addressing with that platform in Belgium.”
Eleven in Poland
One year into its operation in Poland, Eleven is accessible for “almost 100 per cent of the population”, according to Krzysztof Świergiel.
“We are distributed by all major cable and DTH platforms in Poland – altogether close to 60 in total,” he says.
Poland is a typical European market, in many respects, with soccer the sport likeliest to encourage fans to subscribe to a pay-TV broadcaster. The European Handball Federation Champions League and speedway are nods to local proclivities – the latter is “very important to Polish viewers: in some locations it is number one”.
There are other, further-reaching qualities that mark Poland out from other territories in Europe.
“The Polish broadcast market is quite complex because of two factors,” Świergiel explains. “The first is that if you’re looking at the distribution market, it’s one of the very few markets in Europe which we can describe as a very spread market. There are hundreds of operators active which we would like to approach and our intention of course is to be available on all of them. From a business perspective it’s great news; it’s easier to operate in a market which is spread when you have many chances to offer your product.
“On the other hand, we see that there is a huge OTT development. We are trying to make as much as we can out of this development, having our application and our own OTT product which develops quite well. Our numbers are growing from month to month. There are several platforms, including Netflix that we would like to mirror, our intention is to be like a Netflix for sport in Poland.”
To that end, Eleven is working to establish a close relationship with its viewers by being “as interactive as possible”, establishing a strong social media presence and making that the central channel for marketing messaging.
“Of course it’s a question mark for not only us but also the entire market,” Świergiel adds, “how strong and how quick the transfer or transition from the classic video consumption on big TV screens will go in the direction of OTT. This is a question which I cannot answer. Nevertheless such a transition is in place right now, and we are benefiting from that.”
As for what Polish viewers will be watching, on linear or OTT services, the target for Świergiel is an output that is not only local, but premium and unique.
“We wanted to have people who could represent a very high expertise for what they are doing,” he says. “One example reflecting this is that all commentators commentating on the Spanish league have to speak Spanish, commentators on the Italian Serie A have to speak Italian, etc.
“We’ve been selecting new faces, added them to the staff which were already established in the Polish market, and made out of them a kind of mix of people which is very dedicated, very engaged; people who can show high expertise.”
Eleven in Taiwan
“Taiwanese sports, basically, is under the influence of Japanese and American culture a lot,” explains Simone Kang, the general manager of Eleven in Taiwan. “The most popular sports are baseball and basketball. But there is a rise in the popularity of football and when we came in with the major rights for the EPL [Premier League] and Serie A, it was very positive for most of the fans because they are so happy to see the major professional leagues coming to Taiwan. Normally, these were not broadcast in Taiwan.”
Eleven has built its strategy in the island nation around accentuating those differences in its content, rather than trying to compete immediately with the market leaders through a quest for baseball and basketball rights. It has built up a heavy portfolio of soccer rights, with the English and Italian top flights complemented by action from the English Football League and South American qualifiers for the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
From there, it is working to add coverage of “major basketball tournaments or local baseball tournaments”. But the project remains at a very early stage in Taiwan.
“Currently, we are on an OTT operation only,” Kang explains. “We aim to be on pay-TV by the end of this year or January 2017. We need to have a broadcasting licence approved by the national communication committee here in Taiwan, and I think we are going to have the licence approval very soon.
“The complications in Taiwan’s pay-TV system are quite different from what I understand of other countries. There are about five major channels and then 29 independent cable operators. So basically, we need to talk to each one and then get approval. We need to communicate in order to get on to the pay system. But it’s good, because they are some of the major cable distributors that can help us to accomplish the mission.”
The OTT offering is currently available direct to consumer or via the local Chunghwa and ELTA platforms. Once the pay-TV licence is secured, meanwhile, Kang says that Eleven will “pursue a non-exclusive distribution strategy”, in common with what it has done in other markets.
Before joining Eleven, Kang spent time with the two existing major international players in the Taiwanese sports broadcasting scene: ESPN Asia and Fox Sports Taiwan. That experience, she says, has helped her get to know “everyone in the sports production programmes around Taiwan” and she has been able to bring some of that talent with her to join what remains a small operation of six.
“And for some of the junior positions,” she adds, “we have people who love sports and who have skills in production or sports knowledge – who really are passionate about their football, or baseball or basketball, and can join our team. So I think it’s going to be fun and exciting here.”
With its international content in place, Eleven is now putting together its more locally inflected coverage. “Starting from Uefa Euro 2016, we’ve been doing Mandarin voiceovers for every [soccer] game we broadcast,” notes Kang, who singles out presenter Tom Chen as someone with significant appeal to Taiwanese viewers. “We started to localise with a Mandarin voiceover, with studio presentation of a pre-game show and post-game analysis.
“Now we have at least two to four games every weekend with Mandarin voiceover. So we started with Mandarin voiceover; when there is a bigger tournament we are going to have a bigger scale of production, including a studio pre-show, post-show. And we also have Chinese subtitles for some of the magazine shows so it’s easier for the viewers to understand what the show is about, what the report is about.”
Eleven in Singapore
There have been some significant recent changes to Eleven’s operations in Singapore, with Shalu Wasu arriving as managing director in the first week of October. He joined from Circus Social, the social intelligence platform he founded in late 2012 after leading the Ogilvy consulting practice Social@Ogilvy.
“Singapore is both a matured and a digitally advanced market,” explains Wasu. “Pay-TV penetration is high at 70 per cent, and so is home broadband penetration – over 100 per cent – broadband speed – the average speed been sold is 1Gbps – and proliferation of smart devices. Free-to-air TV is government-owned, well-funded, run by competent professionals and is of high quality. Even within pay TV platforms, free-to-air channels – which must be carried – are among the highest-watched.”
It was into that competitive yet highly fertile marketplace that Eleven encroached last year, but the early signs have been encouraging. “The Singapore market was extremely receptive,” Wasu suggests, “and we have seen a better than expected response from the local media, trade and the consumers, which is reflected in the partnership deals and the customer base we have built.”
In Singapore, as elsewhere, it is soccer that is the most powerful driver of viewer interest, with England’s Premier League particularly popular in the city-state. “Other football such as the FA Cup, EFL Cup, English Football League [EFL], England internationals, and of course Singapore’s international matches are also well followed,” Wasu adds. “As the home of English football in Singapore we are proud to hold the rights to all of these English competitions, as well as be the host broadcaster for some of Singapore’s matches, and bring all of this exhilarating football to the fans.”
Wasu intends for Eleven to set itself apart in Singapore through a “three-pronged approach”. Firstly, he says, it has procured “top-tier content that fans actually follow and watch”, rather than choosing to “air hours of content which fill up the schedules and give the illusion of volumes”. Eleven has also worked to unbundle its packages, making content available directly, and accessible on any device. “There is no signing of complicated contracts, and no tie-in for long, extended periods of time,” Wasu adds.
Partnerships have been signed with the key Singaporean media platforms. Eleven is available via Singtel’s television offering, online service Toggle, the StarHub Go streaming service, and through fibre broadband provider M1.
“We produce multiple shows using local talent,” Wasu says, “customised to the Singaporean fans’ palate, cover the local market extensively, and aggressively acquire Singapore-centric content, such as the Fina Swimming World Cup rights which will enable swimming fans to follow the likes of [Rio 2016 Olympic 100m butterfly gold medallist] Joseph Schooling.”
Wasu, of course, has not been involved in the construction of the local Eleven team but is struck by its collective breadth of experience. “The team is built,” he says, “with professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds – we have media and broadcast experts, as well as people from non-media backgrounds, and this brings a diverse perspective into our business and operations.”
He is bullish about what that team can achieve in Singapore.
“We aim to become the number one sports content provider,” he says, “offering targeted and unbundled products and a top-quality experience, at very attractive price points.
“The top and bottom lines will follow.”