Eleven Sports’ Watson eyes “big growth opportunity” as network launches in US

Marc Watson, executive chairman of the fledgling Eleven Sports Network, explains the broadcaster's strategy in the US following Thursday's announcement that it has acquired distribution assets from One World Sports (OWS).

Eleven Sports’ Watson eyes “big growth opportunity” as network launches in US

Multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports Network has launched in the United States following its acquisition of certain distribution assets from the troubled One World Sports (OWS) network.

The launch, first rumoured last weekend and formally announced on Thursday, puts Eleven into 50 million homes right off the bat through carriage deals with the likes of AT&T, DirecT, Verizon, Charter and NCTC.

Eleven, which was established in 2015 by MP & Silva co-founder Andrea Radrizzani and is already in five markets - Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland, Taiwan and Singapore - will initially operate in the US as a linear TV offering, although it is anticipated that an Eleven-branded over-the-top (OTT) service will launch some time later this year.

“We see a very strong cable and satellite market in the US, and a very big market, and actually lots of opportunities within that market as those platforms look to create new and skinnier bundles,” said Marc Watson, the executive chairman of Eleven Sports and its parent company, Aser Media.

“We think there is a great opportunity for a channel like ours. We also see OTT as a big growth opportunity here, just as it is everywhere else in the world, and we’ll be looking to capitalise on that where we can as well.”

Speaking exclusively to SportsPro at this week’s Sportel America media rights convention in Miami, Watson said Eleven plans to broadcast around 400 live events this year, with roughly 1,000 hours of live content and additional shoulder programming.

“We’ll look to increase that significantly next year,” he added. “We are really excited and feel very positive about it.”

Media reports that surfaced last week labelled Eleven’s US launch as a takeover of OWS, which began laying off staff towards the end of last year amid financial troubles. Yet this is not a takeover at all, Watson said.

“We did not buy the [OWS] business,” he explained. “That business still exists and is still owned by its previous shareholders and I don’t know what they are going to do now. But we bought the assets that were interesting to us and that’s helped us launch and launch quickly into the market.”

Watson said Eleven's US operation will be run by Anthony Bailey, a vice president of Aser Media US. Like other networks in the Eleven Sports group, the US unit will operate as a locally run entity whose on-the-ground management team will report into group management.

The operation will be run out of an office in the New York area, Watson said, with production facilities located in Miami.

“This will be an American-led American operation, based here in the States and run locally,” added Watson, who previously masterminded BT’s high-profile launch into the UK sports broadcasting market. “We’ll look to deploy the same model as we have elsewhere because it’s working for us.”

“This will be an American-led American operation, based here in the States and run locally.”

With the network up and running in the US, Eleven is now in the market actively seeking out new content deals - an effort evidenced by the sight of the network’s senior leadership frantically working the floor and hosting several meetings with rights holders at Sportel.

Watson said he believes there is “a lot of good content available”, and while there are established players in the US market that are “way out of our league”, those tend to appeal primarily to “an older male demographic”. Eleven, on the other hand, bills itself as the sports network ‘for the fans’ with a strong emphasis on millennials.

“We see an opportunity to skew a bit younger,” Watson added, “and we’re going to be looking to put together a range of programming that will appeal to all sports but will particularly appeal to a younger audience.

“We’re looking at, initially, a mixture of cycling, soccer, Twenty20 cricket, MMA, boxing, crossfit, maybe some eGaming in there, drone racing. Some established sports but also some new stuff. We’ll make sure it’s well produced, well presented and well marketed, and by doing that we hope to find an audience quickly.”

Watson (left) said Eleven has been evaluating “a number of different markets” in order to develop its business further and that when the opportunity to acquire some of OWS’s distribution assets arose, the company didn’t hesitate to make its move. “We’ve been looking at America for a while,” he said. “It’s a big market: it’s the biggest market in the world for media. There are a lot of players here but actually we see a lot of opportunities too.”

According to Watson, discussions with OWS have taken place for “about the last four months”. While the timeframe from initial opportunity to launch was short, it is roughly similar to the time it took to roll out the Eleven brand in other markets.

“When we decided to launch in Poland and Belgium, we did it in three months,” Watson said, “so time-wise it’s been very similar. We’ve done it a little bit differently but from our point of view, it doesn't make a lot of difference really.”

Though Eleven’s business model is built on developing rights portfolios that combine local programming with major international properties in each of its markets, Watson insists a possible play for a package of coveted domestic rights to one of the US major leagues remains off the cards for now - particularly since the big four are all tied into lucrative and lengthy national broadcast contracts.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do before we can think about getting into that league,” he said. “We’re not in that league and we’ve got no plans to move into that league just yet. We think there’s a lot of opportunity below that here in America and we’ll be looking to make those opportunities work first. And then, in the long term, we’ll see where the business takes us.

“Everyone starts somewhere. Every big business starts somewhere. We’re 18 months old. We’re really at the beginning of our journey.”