Special Report: Sports broadcasting in 2015

In this special report from the October 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine, hear from senior figures from the world of sports broadcasting and media rights ahead of this year's Sportel convention.

Special Report: Sports broadcasting in 2015

Report Sections

Connected

 

Three years after its stunning entry into the UK broadcast market, and two years after launch, BT Sport is carrying the air of an established player. Delia Bushell, the managing director of BT TV and sport, outlines its ambitions in an era of technological and behavioural change.

By Eoin Connolly. Photographs by Graham Fudger.

On 2nd July 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Premier League soccer club Chelsea for UK£140 million. He aimed to use the billions he had made playing the emerging post-communist oil market of his homeland to turn the Londoners, occasional contenders but rare champions, into a major global force.

Within days, the new hierarchy at Chelsea had looked across London to Arsenal, then about to embark on an unbeaten assault on the Premier League title, and submitted a huge offer for their club captain, Patrick Vieira, and superstar forward, Thierry Henry. The bids were rejected but the intent was clear.

“Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn,” quipped Arsenal’s then vice chairman, David Dein, “and is firing UK£50 notes at us.”

It is a line which pithily encapsulates the financial shock and awe of external 21st century investment in the English game. Abramovich’s entry prompted a cycle of upset and grudging acceptance within the sport’s established order that would resume with Manchester City’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2008. 

On 13th June 2012, as the Premier League announced the outcome of its tender for domestic TV rights from 2013/14 to 2015/16, the broadcast market which has bankrolled the competition’s rise heard its own faint echo of the Chelsea story. Sky Sports had grown used to swatting aside competitors over two decades of dominance in the UK pay-TV sector but was been expected to face some competition for its principal hold on live coverage of the league, perhaps from Qatar’s Al Jazeera. That opposition never materialised but what did happen has altered the picture irrevocably. 

BT, at this point, was a minor player in television, its BT Vision platform a throwaway line in a conversation more or less monopolised by Sky. But its pockets were deep, a legacy of its past as a state monopoly that had quickly colonised the privatised UK telecoms market. It went big in its first pitch for Premier League rights, bidding for all seven available packages. Though it came out with just two, its UK£738 million outlay and clutch of first-pick fixtures were a clear statement of its means.

What followed was a brief but bold spree to secure enough sporting programming to fill two channels, and enough on-air talent to front the coverage. A long-term UK£152 million deal was signed with England’s Premiership Rugby, one which contained the controversial seeds that would sprout into European Professional Club Rugby. The likes of MotoGP, WTA tennis and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) were to follow.      

By the time the new service was trailed at a spring 2013 launch, the BT gameplan was clear. As well as being available for a monthly fee to users on various British pay-TV platforms – including Sky –  BT Sport would be given away free to its broadband customers. BT had entered sports broadcasting in an attempt to counter Sky’s move into internet services and telephony. Now, it was trying to reshape the whole market to meet the ‘triple-play’ demands of the consumer of the future.   

Stephen van Rooyen, managing director of sales and marketing for Sky, responded to the challenge by casting the News Corp-owned network as part of the sporting establishment. “For us,” he said, “sport isn’t a marketing gimmick to promote another product. We’re long-term supporters and our sustained investment has benefited sports fans and British sport at all levels.”

That was the opening volley in a war of words which has followed every rights acquisition, every announcement, and every price change since. BT Sport and Sky Sports, whatever each might hope, have become defined in relation to one another. But a little over two years on, few would accept the thrust of van Rooyen’s argument. Least of all Delia Bushell, the managing director of BT TV and sport.   

“There’s real vigour and passion that’s gone into creating the identity of what BT Sport is and making sure that the on-air coverage for viewers is bringing a fresh take on sport,” she suggests. “And I think the coverage and the business model kind of tie together in the sense that if we’ve got a very clear vision to be a consumer price champion in sport and to make sport accessible to fans again – of the over five million viewers or homes we’ve now reached, two million of those are new to premium sport because they couldn’t previously afford Sky. So we’ve made our coverage more accessible and a bit more fun and refreshing, and more pitchside, back in the heart of it with the fans.”

BT’s commitment to sport, Bushell adds, is not just a mood. It is “demonstrably driving real business benefit to BT Consumer” and “it’s clear now that the way BT has approached the coverage of BT Sport, it’s anything but just an add-on”.

Bushell joined BT in April 2014, for want of a less provocative expression, from the other side. In over a decade with BSkyB, she oversaw the development of the operator’s channels on the free-to-air Freeview digital TV platform; she grew Sky’s subscriber base in Ireland as its managing director in the country; and she led Sky’s incursion into BT territory as director of broadband and telephony at BSkyB from 2006 to 2011. It is a CV which suggests the kind of rounded experience needed for the job of consolidating BT’s position in the broadcast market but, as Bushell admits, the group met a steep learning curve on moving into sport.   

“[BT Group chief executive] Gavin [Patterson] will sometimes joke that if BT had properly understood the complexity of what it was getting into in terms of 24-by-seven production of live sport, it would probably have been more daunted at the point of launch,” says Bushell. “The launch achievement of the team was pretty incredible in the sense that they had five to eight months to get up and running an entirely new production studio in the Olympic Village, three channels, etc, and I think BT Sport has really surprised the industry in the quality and the tone and the strength of the on-air broadcast and coverage. 

“But I think in terms of learnings two years in for the business, it has actually delivered almost exactly what we set out to achieve. We have now had seven consecutive quarters of top and bottom-line growth for BT Consumer; we’ve gone from zero to five million BT Sport subscribers – that actually occurred within one year, where it took Sky about ten years to get to that point.”

Delia Bushell, the managing director of BT TV and sport, pictured at the BT Centre in London on Thursday 10th September.

BT’s rationale for its move into sports broadcasting is by now widely understood. Critically, while BT could see Sky encroaching on its territory, it had also spotted a gap in the pay-TV marketplace that the changing means of distribution had opened. 

“If you look at the UK marketplace, premium sport is probably more expensive in being gated by pay-TV than almost any other territory,” says Bushell. “BT looked across, particularly at services like ESPN in the States, which were US$6 a month and in almost 85 per cent of US homes, and where you could have great premium sports coverage in a very low subscription getting very broad distribution and make that model make sense. 

“With the US market, you need that scale of homes to do that. What we did was take that model and then link it to broadband and create what was quite an innovative new business model for a telco in sport and one which got right to the heart of reinvigorating the core business while adding an entirely new adjacent category that also helped to expand future avenues of growth for the BT business.”

Bushell now considers BT to be in the “second chapter” of its sporting adventure. She is speaking to SportsPro in September at the BT Centre, the group’s headquarters near St Paul’s Cathedral. A week later, as it does every matchday, the focus will take a short run down the Central Line to the production centre and studio in Stratford, east London. The purpose-built facility in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – on the opposite flank of town from Sky Sports’ broadcast home – will be running coverage of the Uefa Champions League and Europa League, with both competitions aired by a single UK broadcaster for the first time.   

“There’s real vigour and passion that’s gone into creating the identity of what BT Sport is."

For BT, this represents a “fantastic opportunity”; for Bushell, BT Sport is “now on the cusp of what I would view as one of the most exciting moments”. Certainly, it is a moment of truth. Strategically, the UK£897 million purchase of the rights to Uefa’s club competitions for the next three seasons, a deal completed in late 2013, is the most significant BT has made since its daring arrival. 

For the first time, it has exclusive access to a blue-chip sporting competition, the kind that might make a casual viewer think twice about their subscription priorities. BT will look to convert that into stronger subscriber numbers; it has put a monthly premium on its BT Sport Europe channel for anyone who does not own a BT TV box, which will be lower for broadband customers; it will offer selected games on free-to-air via its BT Sport Showcase channel. As viewers switch across from Sky Sports and ITV, the commercial terrestrial channel that had screened the Champions League since the competition was reformatted in the early 1990s, getting the coverage right will be crucial if BT Sport is to be seen as a broadcaster of real substance. 

On the rights acquisition side, there are indications that the project is approaching maturity. The scale of the Uefa partnership led many to speculate that BT would put the full weight of its UK£17 billion annual revenues behind future negotiations, not least as its TV enterprise could become more important as fibre broadband upgrades in the UK peak. The reality has been different; less devil-may-care. 

BT Sport has focused on differentiating the style of its coverage from its competitors, doing more at pitchside and making it more accessible to fans.

“Sports rights tend to be a combination of price and relationships,” says Bushell of what BT has learned in the sports business. “To win a bid, you’ve got to have developed a relationship with that sport; that sport has got to want you to bring something new to the coverage or the relationships in that area. Rugby’s a great example for us where we feel we’ve really reinvigorated rugby coverage in the UK, because it had been sort of sitting second behind football in pre-eminence and there was actually a real opportunity to raise it back up again. 

“I think you’ve clearly got to retain confidentiality when you go into sports bids – you don’t want to be disclosing your strategy, so it’s always difficult in interviews to say too much – but I think for us we take a very financially disciplined approach and we are carefully selecting the rights that we believe will wrap together into the BT Sport package while staying true to the vision of being a consumer price champion in sport.”

It is tempting to read evidence of that “financial discipline” in the outcome of this year’s set of domestic Premier League rights renewals for 2016/17 to 2018/19. Where speculation before had centred on whether BT would double down on its prior expenditure on the Champions League – or whether there would be a new entry in the form of BeIN Sports or Discovery-backed Eurosport – the story of the day was Sky’s UK£4.18 billion commitment to retaining its lion’s share of premium live games. Reports circulated afterwards in the British press that BT had throttled back in the second round of negotiations after securing the packages it wanted in the first – Saturday evening and selected midweek games, at a cost of UK£960 million. The official line, predictably, is reserved. 

“Well, obviously I can’t disclose what we bid,” Bushell laughs. “I think it’s more a question that Sky’s bidding in the Premier League auction probably surpassed anybody’s expectations, and obviously demonstrated how critical it was to their core business that they retained those rights at any cost. I don’t think that really reflects on us…”

"In the end, what matters is: can you see the value of those rights to your business? What's the maximum price you would pay?"

Whether BT had at any point sniffed an opportunity to usurp Sky is not something on which Bushell will be drawn, although she does believe the episode revealed something about the market leader’s practices. 

“I think, if we’re honest, it reflects the fact that it’s extremely difficult for anybody to outbid Sky for sports rights if they are determined to keep those rights,” she concedes, “because the size and the scale of their pay-TV base, and their existing revenue streams, makes it very difficult for anybody to come up with the business model to surpass them.”

Still, a deal in which “they saw 80 per cent inflation and we saw 17 per cent” is still one that has been greeted with some satisfaction at BT. More to the point, a substantial renewal with one of the world’s leading sports properties can be taken as a measure of trust. 

Yet the best example of BT Sport’s efforts to build partnerships in British sport comes in another code. BT Sport’s initial 2012 deal with Premiership Rugby gave English club rugby union a platform it had not previously enjoyed; the March renewal of that contract until 2021 provided a certainty that has allowed both parties to plan far beyond this autumn’s Rugby World Cup.  

“We’re certainly working closely with Premiership Rugby on how we try and make sure that the Rugby World Cup being hosted in the UK has a halo effect on domestic rugby as well,” says Bushell. “I’m sure it will also have a halo effect on European rugby. So we’re certainly keen to make sure that that benefit passes across, and it’s a fantastic moment for the UK to be hosting the Rugby World Cup, so we’re fingers crossed for a great outcome.”

BT Sport is exploring a similar relationship with women’s soccer – it serves as both broadcaster and sponsor to the Football Association (FA) for the Women’s Super League. But the latest deal it has picked up will act as a disruptor to a partnership its biggest rival has been building for over 20 years. 

Sky Sports has been the home of cricket coverage in the UK for a decade. Since the contentious decision to remove home Test matches from the free-to-air ‘crown jewels’ list at the end of 2005, no England games or games played in England have been shown by any other broadcaster. No other channel has aired live coverage of an overseas England Test since 1990, while Sky also holds the rights to International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments like the Cricket World Cup and to the Indian Premier League (IPL). Outside of Premier League soccer, cricket is seen as the most significant driver of Sky Sports subscriptions. 

For all the discussion about access to coverage, Sky’s money has been vital to the health of English cricket for some time and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has signed over its live rights exclusively until 2019. But in the meantime, BT has found another way through Sky’s defences. As England fans celebrated victory in this summer’s Ashes series, a five-year deal – worth a reported UK£16 million a year – was signed with Cricket Australia. It includes coverage of the return series in 2017/18. 

Asked whether the deal was evidence of a more streetwise approach, Bushell says, “I think catching people off-guard is something you can’t predict because you don’t know what other bidders are thinking in any process at any one time. You have no idea who else is bidding – it’s not just Sky who could be bidding for these rights, it’s other players. The same with the Premier League rights. In the end, what you have to do is have a very clear strategic or financial approach as to what to bid for and why, and what the maximum value of that is, and just stick to that plan and then retain some confidentiality around that. 

BT Sport’s newly retooled app is described by Bushell as “quite a big breakthrough” for users.

“I don’t think you can overly game theory beyond that. In the end, what matters is: can you see the value of those rights to your business? What’s the maximum price you would pay? And then just follow through the best strategy you can – and in particular around building relationships in advance with the rights holders. The rights holders, in the end, make a financial decision, but there’s also an element of trust there. I think one of the biggest challenges for a new player like BT Sport is that you’ve got to build those relationships and you’ve got to build that trust.”

At present, BT Sport’s cricket coverage begins and ends with the Caribbean Premier League, a T20 franchise tournament that takes place while English minds are occupied with the domestic season. The partnership with Cricket Australia will help BT develop its brand of cricket coverage but, beyond that, Bushell is keeping an open mind. 

“It’s hard to say yet where we see that going,” she says. “Clearly, it opens up opportunities. It gives us a great set of marquee rights from autumn 2016 on through – first we’ll get some Australian home internationals, then we’ll get the Big Bash, and then will come the Ashes. So it gives us a set of great events to build out BT Sport with; there’s a relatively strong crossover between lovers of football and lovers of cricket, and there are a number of different cricket rights in the marketplace and a number of different avenues that we could potentially take going forward. But I think we’ll start by focusing on delivering great cricket coverage and then go from there.”

Understandably, plenty of attention has been dedicated to what will be shown on BT Sport but the way people watch will have as much bearing on its prospects.

“Consumers increasingly want flexibility and to choose what they want to buy, and not be forced to have it packaged up with other things that they may value less,” Bushell argues, laying out the case for a multi-platform approach which includes carriage on Sky and Virgin Media cable. “And they want to be able to watch it through whatever device and wherever they are. So, certainly, in the BT Sport model we were sort of trying to look to the future in saying, ‘Well, actually, 85 to 95 per cent of homes have a broadband connection, anyway.’ Therefore, packaging up sport connected with broadband is a relatively easy thing to do because there are few homes who aren’t choosing to take broadband anyway.” 

In August, BT TV agreed a deal to carry the American cable channel AMC – originator of popular series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad – exclusively in the UK. “You need to have the whole portfolio offering, so we’ve spent the last six to 12 months really building out what BT TV’s service is,” Bushell explains. 

Nevertheless, as viewing habits move away from the traditional experience – even though, as Bushell points out, “80, 90 per cent of viewing is still done on a linear basis on TV as a whole” – the value of sport is still on the rise.  

Bushell joined the BT operation from a stint at Sky Italia, where she served as chief commercial officer. That experience has given her an insight into the differences in the pay-TV landscape across the continent. 

“The UK is unique in that it has high levels of pay-TV penetration,” she notes, “and one disproportionately strong player at the moment in Sky – who, I forget the statistic, but has 60 to 70 per cent of revenues and subscribers which, compared to any other territory, is incredibly strong and an almost dominant position. It’s been very successful: Sky has done an amazing job of growing pay-TV and getting consumers to see the value in paying for television services and across Europe, that varies a lot. 

“In Germany, there’s very high levels of free-to-air and much lower levels of pay-TV; Italy is somewhere in between. I think the drivers of consumer choice and take-up are very similar across all of them, with sport, entertainment, drama and movies pivotal in almost all of them. But I think the UK is probably one of the most mature pay-TV markets and one of the most intensely competitive markets in the world, with the most dominant leading player in the form of Sky.”

Bushell believes that BT Sport has reinvigorated rugby union coverage in the UK since signing its initial UK£152 million deal to show the Aviva Premiership.

Whatever the differences between those markets, though, technological developments are already setting changes in motion that could be to the benefit of BT’s model. 

“The trend, certainly very strongly in the UK and the US – and what tends to happen is that the UK and US lead and other European territories come behind – is for people to start to move away from what I would call ‘full-fat pay-TV’ and towards more ‘pay-light’ type services,” Bushell argues. “And as broadband penetration has grown, and web-surfing has grown, and video consumption on the web has grown, people start to question whether they really want to pay a very high monthly fee for pay-TV and want to actually choose slightly more dynamically, at a lower price range, the services they want to pay for. 

“Which is why Netflix has done so well in the States, and now also in the UK: if you look at charts of the UK market, Netflix’s growth is carving its way up through all the providers. In some cases, that’s free-to-air customers taking Netflix. In some cases, that’s Sky, Virgin or BT TV adding Netflix on top of their existing subscriptions. But that’s increasingly a trend that’s happening and, while it will take ten or 20 years, the gradual shift from linear to on-demand is only going to keep being reinforced.” 

Bushell believes it is “absolutely possible over a five-year horizon you could see Google, Apple, Netflix, whichever one, look at coming into the sports marketplace”. For now, however, the challenge for BT is to respond to the changing market conditions those companies have effected. It may be becoming a household name in sports broadcasting but in crafting the messaging and pricing of its Champions League coverage, BT has not lost sight of the need to consolidate its customer base. “I mean, we very clearly advertise that it’s UK£5 with BT Broadband or free with BT TV,” says Bushell. “I think that’s a very simple and pretty compelling choice.” 

Bushell, tellingly, compares that UK£5 monthly cost of the additional service to that of “an app you might download off iTunes”. It is an ecosystem that an increasing number of potential viewers will understand better than that of pay-TV. 

Digital culture is not only changing how people expect to pay for television coverage, but also how they can watch it. BT Sport’s own app was retooled at the start of the European soccer season to coincide with its Champions League debut. Bushell describes the software as “quite a big breakthrough” for those using it as a second screen or as a primary viewing tool. She launches enthusiastically into a demonstration on her own tablet, showing a replay of Manchester United’s qualifier against Belgium’s Club Brugge. Various menus, laid over the top of the action, allow in-game access to statistics, replays, highlights and alternative angles.    

For those who prefer to watch on a rather bigger screen, BT has also become the first major broadcaster to run a regular ultra HD service for its BT Sport Europe channel. “We launched ultra HD because we saw that something like 60 or 70 per cent of new television sets now being sold are actually 4K or ultra HD television sets, and that replacement cycle is gradually happening over time,” Bushell explains. “And of all the viewing experiences where ultra HD is most stunning, it’s in live sport. We wanted to be at the head of the innovation wave of that. But, similar to HD, it will be a gradual phasing in over time. It’s not a sudden, overnight revolution but it was key to us.”

The introduction of such services, the desire to be seen “at the pinnacle of sports innovation”, is the kind of statement of intent that major broadcasters are expected to make – the kind that such large-scale commitment to rights fees tends to demand. But for many viewers, the way that coverage is packaged and presented is what will form the overriding impression. 

To that end, BT Sport paired the ultra HD announcement with the signing of Gary Lineker. The former England striker – who has made light of moving from second to third in his country’s list of all-time international goalscorers following Wayne Rooney’s record-breaking strike in September – is now almost as well known as the face of the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day highlights programme. He will be moonlighting for BT Sport as the lead presenter of Champions League coverage, as he has for NBC and Al Jazeera in the past.  

“Clearly, you always want your sport coverage to have top presenters and pundits,” says Bushell, “and Gary, for us, was just a perfect choice because he’s a much-loved and much-respected presenting figure. Given that we, in the positioning that we have, combine people that have always been on free-to-air but now want more free or paid-for football or have always loved Sky Sports, he’s a great figure to combine those two target customer groups together.”

It may also be that Lineker’s presence creates an implicit link between BT and the BBC, who made a joint announcement of their deal to share FA Cup coverage in 2014. And while Bushell says the development of the technological and editorial offerings are “kind of not comparable”, she does believe that defining BT’s on-air look and feel has been vital to its progress.

“I think it’s really important, actually, and I think, probably, we may not even have realised how important it is until we achieved it,” she says. “But obviously there was a history – that Setanta and ESPN had tried and failed in what you might call that secondary sports player to Sky Sports role in the marketplace – and I think in order to succeed, you needed to have a genuine editorial point of difference and a sense of bringing something fresh and new in broadcasting coverage as well as some great flagship rights. And it’s been having both of those that has been why it’s worked so well.”

The question for BT Sport is whether, in its new guise as an established broadcaster, the time has come to step away from newness for its own sake and embrace something a little more conventional. Bushell sees it more as a question of development. 

“I joined a year ago,” she says. “The way I’d describe it is, the first year or so of launch, it mattered incredibly to be different. Now in what I’d call the second chapter or second wave, with the step up in volume and having the Champions League brand and Europa League brand and narrative now under our umbrella, I think being different becomes slightly less important than just doing what we believe is the most world-class, world-leading coverage for the Champions League, and doing justice to that franchise and that brand and the excitement of those games. So that, I think, now, is probably more where the business is.”

For all the rhetoric and hyperbole, that is now the status of BT Sport: a service that aims to be “one of the broadest-distributed and most accessible consumer ways of getting premium sport while also supporting the ongoing growth of the BT Consumer business”, and “is established in a really clear and sustainable way for the long term”. 

As a rallying cry, or a call to arms, it may not curdle the blood. But in its own way, it is a clear and confident statement that this hugely ambitious project is working.

Long-term shot

 

Following the best traditions of IMG, Ioris Francini has risen from the bear pit of the sales floor to the boardrooms of key clients. A deal-spinner turned strategic kingpin, with a knack for spotting trends before they happen, he has become a central figure in positioning IMG for change amid the WME revolution.

By James Emmett

Everybody remembers their first deal, but only a handful of first deals are particularly memorable. For Ioris Francini, president of IMG Events & Media and one of the sharpest strategic minds in the sports media industry, life at the agency began in less than glamorous fashion. 

Joining Trans World International (TWI), IMG’s events arm, in the early 2000s, Francini was given the sports industry dealmaker’s equivalent of the graveyard shift. Thrown in at the deep end selling TV rights to individual international soccer games, the young Francini found a stagnant and, arguably, corrupt Italian sports broadcast market was proving largely unresponsive to his overtures. No national broadcasters were interested, no pay-TV broadcasters were interested. Employing the brand of twinkle-in-the-eye charm and hard-nosed tenacity that has gone on to serve him well on his journey through the ranks of IMG, Francini plugged away and eventually nabbed himself a deal at the last moment. “I finally convinced a regional Napolitan TV channel to buy it for €1,500, which to this day is probably the most exciting sale I’ve ever done because it was impossible!” he reflects. 

Francini quickly combined his instinct and flair for sales with a cool aptitude for management. He was made head of sales for the EMEA region at IMG Media in 2007, managing the agency’s relationships with the ATP, MotoGP, and the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) among others. By 2010, he had been made a senior vice president and head of sales worldwide at IMG Media, and in 2012 he was made an executive vice president with the added responsibility of heading up acquisitions, a not inconsiderable show of trust given the risk inherent in that side of the rights arbitrage business.

When the William Morris Endeavour (WME) agency bought IMG in December 2013, a reshuffle – and redundancies and departures – became inevitable as the entertainment giant looked to consolidate its purchase by merging divisions and ironing out inefficiencies. Management and organisational restructuring, as well as the process of buying in to a new corporate culture, will always catalyse that process.

Ari Emanuel, the combined agency’s bullish new co-chief executive, had, privately at least, made no bones about the fact that personnel changes would have to be made. Both in private and in public, though, his confidence in and respect for Francini was never in question. In July last year WME made its first formal, major restructuring move, merging IMG's media business with its events and federations business, as well as its fashion, golf, and tennis divisions into one unified entity – IMG Events & Media. Michel Mesquelier, president of IMG Media since 2009 and the life and soul of the agency on the European side of the Atlantic for years, would chair the new division. Francini would be promoted to the role of president.

Emanuel’s respect for Francini is by no means one-way traffic. The Italian was struck by the energy and charisma of his new leader almost immediately. “He’s unique for many things and he knows that,” Francini says. “He’s got some cons, no doubt. He’s a man with an instinct and a determination that’s unbelievable and very refreshing. He’s inspired only by the will to succeed. There’s no Machiavellian thing; he’s just a machine in that respect. It’s very inspiring.”

If the new ownership and the new, combined WME | IMG name weren’t enough, the winds of change continue to blow through the organisation. Francini has new responsibilities to go with his new role – partly as a natural result of promotion, and partly due to the evolving nature of IMG’s business. The division also has a gleaming new US$55 million production centre at Stockley Park, a stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport, and new European corporate headquarters in the same Chiswick business park as the newly sport-focused Discovery Networks International.

IMG Events & Media president Ioris Francini, pictured in London on Tuesday 25th August.

Talking over a coffee in the canteen of the smart but still rather sparse new offices, Francini explains the nuts and bolts of his new role. IMG is the granddaddy of the sports agency world and, having founded its business on athlete representation, there is now effort from the very top to refocus on that strand of its work. Francini, however, works across almost everything but representation. As president of IMG’s events and media division, he oversees three distinct but inter-connecting verticals: production, rights acquisition and distribution, and management of media joint ventures. 

While there are production hubs based around the world, IMG’s Stockley Park facility is the heart of its production business. Up and running in September 2013, the three-floor facility has four TV studios, three radio studios, nine live galleries, and 22 craft editing suites with 50 other editing areas. IMG runs its Sport24 airline and cruise channel from Stockley Park, as well as the Premier League’s content service and Channel 4’s racing operation, among others. European Tour Productions, one of three current joint ventures under Francini’s management, is also operated from Stockley Park. The other two – a similar arrangement with golf’s Asian Tour and SNTV, a sports news service set up with the Associated Press – are based elsewhere.

“What’s really interesting about this particular piece of the media business is that it actually enables us to launch our own products that we then also commercialise and distribute,” says Francini of the company’s production capabilities. 

“To me, it’s quite simple: my main focus today is to secure content for as long as possible, and to make it as meaningful as possible.” 

 

“There are a lot of links with the distribution and actually that dialogue is quite unique in terms of new initiatives and trying to evolve our own business models,” he says. “20 years ago we were representing rights – buying rights and selling rights. That was an easy intermediary business. A lot has happened since. We need to be ready to create our own things.”

The rights acquisition and distribution business is a well-established one for IMG. Media rights to a wide pool of sports are bought, repackaged and sold on to broadcasters around the world via Francini’s global sales team across 35 different offices. 

The scope of IMG’s activities is both deep and broad, and Francini’s role is an eclectic one. “There are 20 to 25 direct reports to attend to,” he says of any given day at the office. “One of the things I’m deeply daily involved in is important projects that will have a clear impact across all of our businesses – new initiatives, new bids. In any given week we have around six or seven bids to submit. Whether it’s a gaming rights bid to the PGA Tour, whether it’s a Champions League or Premier League bid for Sport 24. We make a recommendation and, depending on certain thresholds, we then have a very quick sign-off with the CFO of the group [Chris Liddell] and Ari.

“To me, it’s quite simple: my main focus today is to secure content for as long as possible, and to make it as meaningful as possible. That’s essentially the commodity we deal with.”

Francini has praised the “instinct and determination” of WME | IMG co-chief Ari Emanuel.

While the nitty-gritty of the sales process still holds a thrill for him, it is acquisitions that take up the bulk of Francini’s time. Long-term agreements are crucial in ensuring the security of a company like IMG and, in an ever more competitive environment, convincing rights holders to hand over the keys to their business for such long stretches of time requires a deftness of touch and an expert understanding of exactly how you intend to provide more value than your competitors. 

“Competition is coming from three or four different directions, but we’re not surprised about it,” explains Francini, who highlights Perform, Infront and MP & Silva as the agencies providing the stiffest form of traditional competition at present. “It’s getting more sophisticated. Competition is ironically coming from our own clients. They’re getting more expert about what they’re doing. They hire their own people. 

“Tennis Australia is a case in point – a client of ours. They hired a bunch of their own people and now they want to do their sales directly,” Francini notes. “That’s one challenge. Another challenge is that some of our existing customers – our buyers – are going upstream. Either they want to own things – so Discovery all of a sudden buys Formula E. We knew of discussions between Discovery and Formula One that broke down. In the whole supply chain, the boundaries are getting very blurry, and in that blur we find that competition is just stepping it up. 

“So for us the challenge is: a) to continue finding gaps and inefficiencies within sports where no-one has the insight or vision on how to create those efficiencies, and b) to demonstrate that the expertise we have converts into real, tangible assets. So a client, let’s say a Grand Slam, will come to you. We need to prove to the Grand Slam that they think they can do a certain deal, but actually through our existing offices locally – and the guy’s been there five or six years, 15 years in the company, and knows everyone – they can capture something, the timing that actually creates an incremental benefit to the client.”

IMG works with the USTA on the distribution of media rights to the US Open outside of the Americas.

One such Grand Slam tennis tournament that was recently convinced of the ongoing and evolving benefits that being tied in with IMG can bring is the US Open and its organiser, the US Tennis Association (USTA). In March, the two parties signed off on a deal that will see IMG continue to consult on the distribution of US Open media rights outside the US, Canada and Latin America until 2025. 

Another important moment came in June, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Discovery announced a deal that in modern day business parlance would no doubt be categorised as a landmark piece of ‘disruption’. The €1.3 billion deal handed two Olympic cycles’ worth of media rights to Discovery and Eurosport, cutting out the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and flipping the traditional European Olympic distribution model on its head. While the Olympic charter ensures that a certain amount of free-to-air content from each Games will be shown in every market, how Discovery facilitate that has yet to be decided. 

On the Discovery side of that deal were president David Zaslav and international president JB Perrette; on the IOC side, Olympic TV and marketing services managing director Timo Lumme, and his adviser from IMG, one Ioris Francini. “We had the European team in place to consult with the IOC on all the market research, analysis and the tender process,” says Francini. “It was significant, a big deal.”

Back in October, Francini and his team struck an eight-year deal with Major League Soccer (MLS). The wide-ranging agreement saw IMG replace MP & Silva as the international distributor of MLS, as well as the rights to US men’s and women’s national team matches played on American soil until 2022. It was the first long-term retention of Francini’s tenure and represented “a very important deal” for IMG, not least because it provides the agency with a strengthened foothold in the international soccer market. 

Francini’s team is currently in the process of bidding for English Premier League soccer rights in selected international territories – and on this, Francini promises to be more aggressive than the agency has been in recent cycles. “Ari prefers trying and failing to not trying at all,” he says. “That actually blends very well with how we go about business as well. We’re ready and we’re keen to see where the Premier League will actually invite agencies because in some markets, given some previous dynamics, they’ve opted to do it for broadcasters only.”

But, to derive a vague euphemism from the ongoing Fifa scandal, top-level soccer rights are not a straightforward business. “Football, no matter how damaged reputationally, remains the beautiful game and there’s always a massive demand globally for it,” says Francini. “Getting more football is an aspiration that every agency has. What is out there? The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was out there. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) was out there. There are a number of American federations and confederations out there. And then there are a bunch of leagues.

IMG replaced MP & Silva as the international distributor of the United States’ Major League Soccer.

“Unfortunately, football has traditional conservative barriers to entry one way or the other. It’s been impossible, even with very aggressive numbers, to get anywhere near the AFC. We made a bid of US$2.5 billion over eight years. Today it’s worth US$900 million over that period. We offered two and a half times that. Didn’t get anywhere near it. We understand that there’s been a quiet renewal with World Sport Group. That was one of the instances where we tried to express what the upside would have been for all the stakeholders, but we didn’t get anywhere. 

“You ask yourself where the interests lie. The English Premier League is the model. The English Premier League is also very efficient and transparent: it allows agencies to bid in many markets, just like broadcasters, and they’ll go for the highest offer. So we’re still in the hunt for those. We tried with La Liga and weren’t invited to a second round, but we did present a very strong first round offer. 

“Football is becoming a more and more centralised commodity,” he adds. “We still think there is room for opportunities as a result of inefficiencies in some regions and markets. We think African football, Asian football and American football can still improve. The format can improve; the exploitation programme can improve. We’re still looking at how someone like us can add all that value and help them transition and modernise the sport.”

It is a sensitive area for a senior figure at an international sports agency to delve into. The ramifications of the Fifa scandal could well reach far beyond the federation itself and the Traffic Sports agency at the centre of the bribery allegations. Francini is careful with his words, and acknowledges that there are unscrupulous practices going on in soccer. “For us,” he says, “the higher the level of scrutiny, the higher the opportunity. It’s in our best interest to have scrutiny.” Whether that scrutiny will come to bear, given the closed-shop governance structures of many pockets of the soccer industry, is another matter entirely.

The activities of his competitors and the treacherous vagaries of the soccer market are by no means the only challenges facing Francini. 

Closer to home, the consolidation of WME and IMG resources and objectives continues apace. There comes a point when top-level talk about integration and ‘un-siloing’ – Emanuel’s term for the process of building connections between the various divisions and pockets of expertise across WME | IMG – has to be translated into action and tangible results. That point came for IMG Events & Media earlier this year when the WME hierarchy decided to harness the global sales capacity that IMG could bring with an unusual product proposition. 

“I think the main challenge we have and I have as an individual is to try to reinvent yourself, update and upgrade what you do, as the market evolves,” says Francini, taking up the story. “All of a sudden WME says, ‘Here we are; we represent 65 per cent of the scripted television marketplace, and similar non-scripted – all the talent behind it, the authors, the directors. We could actually find a solution for you guys to sell all this scripted and non-scripted content around the world. Are you ready to do it?’ Well, we’d love to, but let me go and get a dictionary to check what ‘scripted entertainment’ means!” Francini laughs.

Distributing scripted drama, such as The Night Manager starring Hugh Laurie, is new territory for Francini.

WME is in the process of distributing a six-part series based on a novel by John le Carré. The Night Manager will feature Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander and, although it is about espionage and underhand dealings, it is nevertheless a world away from the live sporting products that make up the bread and butter of the average IMG salesperson’s day-to-day. 

“It’s a big series, big names attached, good director, and we had it to sell in five or six territories,” says Francini. “Our colleagues at WME who had the series and who usually relied on third party international entertainment distribution experts say, ‘Let’s see if this WME | IMG model can actually work. Instead of going for the big bang theory of IMG taking it all over the world, let’s try selected important markets.’ So we picked Australia, the Nordics and a few other markets. 

“We had projections. The WME colleagues had their own projections too. Eventually, our head of the Nordics, Kristian Hysen, who has been in the company for 18 years, he knows all the CEOs of every single group,” says Francini. “He needed to have someone flanking him who knew how to talk about stories, and this meets that, and all that stuff that gives it context and flavour, but ultimately the relationship with the CEO was the local guy’s. He did a deal that went well beyond the target that the WME colleagues had set. It was a surprise for everyone. The same thing happened in Australia, and in New Zealand. It’s been a really interesting case study that proves that, even for a first attempt and without having integrated everything, there were some slivers of hope and potential. 

“Out of the Night Manager case,” Francini adds tantalisingly, “there will be something massive that will be announced soon in entertainment. Our involvement is going to be global in it.” 

A numbers game

 

When MP & Silva’s influential co-founder Andrea Radrizzani announced he would be stepping out of the agency game to establish Eleven Sports Network in August, questions were asked about his motives across the sports broadcasting industry. With Eleven now up and running in Poland, Belgium and Singapore, Radrizzani outlines the vision behind his ambitious new venture.

By Michael Long

“What we have done in four months was probably irrational and crazy in a way, but now I think it was necessary because sometimes you have to jump on opportunities in the sports industry and work hard to execute it.”

Andrea Radrizzani had every reason to doubt the rationality of his latest project. Having stepped down from his role as chief executive of MP & Silva, one of the sporting world’s leading media rights agencies, earlier this year, the Italian businessman is now heading up a fledgling challenger brand in the ultra-competitive world of sports broadcasting. It was a move that saw the experienced entrepreneur switch from established player to little-known underdog, but Radrizzani is confident he has the tools to succeed outside of his agency comfort zone.

Radrizzani debuted his new venture, Eleven Sports Network, in Poland, Belgium and Singapore in August, with a further launch in Taiwan imminent. All this just four months after he incorporated The Channels Co Ltd, Eleven’s parent company, in London in March. It was, in every respect, a speedy process from conception to launch and it has led many to ask what moved Radrizzani not only to create the network, but to set up in those specific markets above all others.

“It was a mix of opportunities in the rights acquisitions and also an analysis of the profile of the markets we were looking at,” says Radrizzani, explaining the rationale for his venture during an early September interview with SportsPro. “The markets are, in a way, similar. Singapore and Belgium are very mature markets with a high penetration of pay- TV and a pretty high output. On the opposite side we have Poland and Taiwan, where the middle class is growing and the output is still small but the potential to grow in the years is there.”

Eleven has launched with two HD channels: one, Eleven, is devoted exclusively to soccer while the other, Eleven Sports, shows soccer plus a range of other sports. In Poland, the network boasts top-level league soccer from Spain, France, Italy, Belgium and Scotland, as well as England’s FA Cup, the ATP World Tour 250 tennis series, the National Football League (NFL) and European handball’s EHF Champions League, among other properties. In Belgium, rights to La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 are complemented by club soccer from Brazil and Germany, in addition to four live National Basketball Association (NBA) games per week and action from the ATP World Tour. Eleven’s Singaporean and Taiwanese channels will also show a good deal of the above along with a mix of localised programming. All told, Eleven Sports Network plans to offer more than 2,000 hours of live coverage per year in each of the markets.

Radrizzani describes his business model as “mixed” – a flexible one that deploys no single, one-size-fits-all approach and which is intended to ensure the network is as locally relevant and tailored to the nuances of each individual market as possible. To that end, Eleven has sought to partner with the major direct-to-home (DTH), cable, IPTV and mobile operators in each market, with programming packaged up and distributed differently from territory to territory. An over-the-top (OTT) offering is also part of the overall plan. In Taiwan, where Eleven has already had a soft launch but the network will, according to Radrizzani, be fully operational “in a question of weeks”, a standalone OTT offering will be at the heart of Eleven’s entry into the market.

“My model is not really like a business-to- business model like other channels: to buy rights and operate like an agency by selling the rights in a package of a channel,” Radrizzani explains. “It’s more a mixed model including a part of risk and go together to sell the subscription and take part of the revenue, which in the short term could be very challenging and risky but I believe if you have the key rights, in the medium/long term there could be a reward.”

Radrizzani says initial uptake of the Eleven channels has been positive. At the time of writing, carriage deals have been struck in Poland, where the network is available for free until mid- October when it will be offered for a monthly fee on nc+, Netia, TVN’s Player.pl as well as cable networks East & West, City-Net, Gawex and Elsat; in Belgium with Belgacom/Proximus TV and Luxembourg with Tango TV/ Proximus; and in Singapore with Singtel – although Radrizzani says that ongoing discussions over a similar agreement with Singtel’s main rival Starhub “should bring a result soon”. 

Radrizzani’s focus to date has been on getting up and running but with the channels now launched, phase two will entail a concerted promotional push to embed the Eleven brand within the local viewership. “To be honest,” he says, “in four months we have been focused on being on-air and being available. I think the next phase is to be more active locally in terms of local marketing partnerships with the platforms, but even so, honestly we’ve had quite good feedback.

“In Poland we have about 6,000 followers on Twitter and we have been talked about quite a lot in the media in the last two months,” he adds. “We have a local team customising our content and social media strategy in every market. We will invest a lot in the social media and digital to focus our standalone offer beside the platform on OTT.”

With a long history of trading media rights from the opposite side of the negotiating table, Radrizzani is under no illusions as to the challenge he faces entering the already crowded broadcast market. He, as well as anyone, knows that content is king, but he also knows that content means little without a savvy approach to distribution.

“I think it’s a very competitive and very challenging and difficult space,” he says. “There are a lot of operators, very solid companies. There are companies who can offer not only sports channels but also entertainment and movies and kids and many other contents, so they have huge leverage of the platform. But I believe it’s a phase in the history of media where, for the first time, it’s easier to access directly to the user due to the technology and the digital space.

“Nowadays you can really reach your fans with a good quality even without a platform,” he argues. “I mean, obviously it’s better to have, and we all want to have, a platform as a partner, but I think social media and digital media are helping to have a direct relationship with the customer at any level. In the years I think this will become more and more important, so I believe it’s a good time to start something that goes to the customer directly.”

Eleven has dedicated one of its two channels across its territories to soccer, with many of the rights having been acquired from MP & Silva.

In any sector of any market, the arrival of a new player is invariably greeted by the status quo with an element of caution. Radrizzani’s decision to enter the broadcasting game has been no different, with many industry observers quick to question the reasoning behind what was, at least on the face of it, an unexpected move.

Radrizzani founded MP & Silva along with his business partner Riccardo Silva in 2004 and the pair made a name for themselves as ambitious entrepreneurs, first establishing a market position in Asia before quickly growing the group into one of the go-to media rights agencies across the world of sport. Though Radrizzani sold a batch of his shares in MP & Silva to his fellow co-founder in early August, shortly before the Eleven channels hit the airwaves, he will retain an undisclosed shareholding in the company.

“At the moment I am not involved anymore in the day-to-day business,” says Radrizzani, explaining the nature of his continuing ties with MP & Silva. “If there is some important investment, obviously I am involved to discuss and to decide together with the other shareholders. But I am not involved in the day-to-day business. There is a lot of energy taken by this new venture and also the new venture is obviously in the same field, so I need to make sure that there is no point of conflict with the agency.”

Yet the inevitable questions remain. Some have speculated that Radrizzani’s new venture is a way for MP & Silva to increase its influence in the channels business whilst adding insider knowledge and expertise at boardroom level. Others have ventured to suggest that he plans to build up the equity value of Eleven Sports Network before selling it on further down the line – probably to BeIN Media Group, the Qatari-owned broadcaster that maintains close ties with MP & Silva and has made no secret of its desire to expand its brand of networks globally.

Such suggestions are, however, conjecture. Of more pressing concern for some is the fact that Radrizzani has been quick to team up with his associates at MP & Silva, claiming several packages of rights from the agency as he works to build out the Eleven portfolio. And there could be more to come. In Malaysia, a market Radrizzani has earmarked for expansion, MP & Silva clinched a wide-ranging 15-year media and marketing deal with the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) earlier this year. Likewise in Singapore, MP & Silva, led by Radrizzani himself, entered into a six-year partnership with the city-state’s soccer authority in February.

Radrizzani’s relationship with MP & Silva has inevitably led the conspiracists to cry foul and allege anti-competitive practices but the Italian himself is having none of it. “I don’t think Riccardo and the other shareholders want to give me the rights for free,” he insists. “I mean, I wish, but unfortunately it’s not the case. I have to pay and I have to pay market price because I don’t think, if you are partner with an agency, you want to give away your rights to someone who is your shareholder or your friend. I mean, I’ve never seen something like that. I wish, but that is not the case.”

Eleven Sports will show four live NBA games per week in Belgium, demonstrating its commitment to providing premium sports content.

Though his Eleven venture has raised a few eyebrows, Radrizzani says his career switch has been in the works for some time and he believes he has the necessary skills to make his first real crack at broadcasting a success. At MP & Silva, he was involved in most of the company’s rights acquisition contracts with major rights holders and two years ago he helped launch local-language versions of the BeIN Sports brand in Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, anchored by MP & Silva’s portfolio of media rights. He also has experience of working as an advisor to local and national broadcasters at a time when the line between agencies and international broadcasters has never been more blurred.

“The two experiences basically gave me the idea that I wanted to focus my next phase professionally on something new, to challenge the broadcasters and platforms with a new proposition,” he says. “Those experiences in the local rights as well as in the channel made me think that probably there is, in my opinion, an opportunity and a gap to enter in the, let’s say, second-tier markets, so not the top markets.

“In the second-tier markets there is an opportunity because normally the international networks are going there with secondary rights, not with the top rights, and there is some opportunity in countries like Belgium where exclusivity is not really the key element for the platform.”

As it stands, Radrizzani has no intention of expanding beyond so-called “second-tier markets” that he believes offer the greatest chance of competing with the established networks when it comes to rights acquisitions. Future expansion will, he says, depend on whether the market in question offers the same level of opportunity as those which Eleven has already entered.

“At the moment my mission is to become the number one channel in the markets where we are,” he continues. “We don’t need to be global; we need to be very focused where we are. Then if there is the opportunity along the line to increase the market and we can afford, we have the fi nancial backing to enter into domestic rights in some second-tier markets, why not [expand]? But normally we are looking at markets where the investment for the top rights, the domestic rights – whether they are football or baseball or whatever they are – are, say, €20 million to €70 million per year, either in small mature markets or growing media markets where the medium class is growing.”

Asked whether Eleven will seek to acquire English Premier League rights, Radrizzani says the division is so powerful a brand now it is “like a domestic league” in many countries around the world. Ratings and rights fees have skyrocketed in recent years and with the league’s latest round of international rights sales ongoing, Radrizzani is not ruling out making a play for the coveted competition in future.

“It depends on the country, but for sure Premier League is something we’ll look at,” he says. “To be successful we need to have the top rights in each country, whether it’s a domestic sport or something that is driving subscriptions.” In terms of funding, Radrizzani says he has financed his new venture through his own means thus far. He reveals, however, that he has “opened discussions with different parties including private equities and private investors” in a bid to secure further investment.

“In the next six months to 12 months, probably the capital will be restructured and open to other investors,” he says. “I have an ambition that needs more capital to do, to deliver a good brand that becomes in future an icon in the sports industry and a lifestyle in the countries we enter.”

Marc Watson (left) and Danny Menken have come on board at Eleven from BT Sport and Infostrada respectively, bringing significant broadcasting experience.

Helping Radrizzani to achieve that ambition is a highly skilled team of broadcasting executives. Marc Watson, the Englishman who led BT Sport’s game-changing entry into the UK pay-TV market in 2013, and Danny Menken, the former managing director for the Benelux region and several other territories at Eurosport who joined from his role of chief executive officer at sports data and TV production company Infostrada Sports, have been brought on board as non-executive director and managing director respectively. Radrizzani has also put together local management teams in each market, with former Telenet executive Anouk Mertens, for example, leading the network in Belgium.

“I’ve been lucky because, starting so quickly, I was able to find good people available,” reflects Radrizzani. “Now we are entering a new phase where we approach with a much more rational view the development, and we have already the channels active on air and we have a local team in every country. This is very important because we started this project not from a central operation and headquarters in terms of management and also production. But we are starting very local with a small and light international team in London but then we have a highly professional management as well in every country.”

As for the name he has chosen for his network, which does not yet have production studios to call home, Radrizzani says: “Eleven had different meanings in my mind when I created the brand. First of all, it’s the number of players in football but also in other sports: American football and other sports, they play in 11. So it’s a symbol of a team. A team also means united and together, so it’s a symbol of cohesion. At the same time, the ‘E’ of Eleven stands for emotional, entertaining, electrifying. That is what our channel is going to be and it’s our slogan.”

As Eleven’s development plays out and more rights are inevitably sought, there will be many within the industry who will be keeping a close eye on the progress of Radrizzani’s venture. It is, of course, early days but Radrizzani insists he is most definitely in it for the long haul.

“The vision is to integrate Eleven with other media projects including a bike channel that I’m investing in and bringing from Italy to the UK, and potentially other countries later on,” he says. “And then I have a dream always in my heart to develop one day a kid’s sports channel. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of my new career.” 

Production values

 

ITN is one of the most venerable names in international news. Now, through the partnership of its ITN Productions arm with the Football League, it is delivering sporting stories in a way that could appeal far beyond English soccer.

By Eoin Connolly 

In sport, certain partnerships are meetings of institutions. 

The Football League is one of the oldest surviving sporting competitions anywhere in the world. Bringing together communities of soccer fans across the country, week after week for months of the year, it is part of the fabric of everyday English life. 

For millions of viewers in the UK, ITN has a similar resonance. Founded as Independent Television News in 1955, it has supplied news coverage to the country’s leading free-to-air commercial broadcaster, ITV, ever since. Until 1999 all of those bulletins, including the nightly comfort blanket that was News At Ten, were broadcast under the ITN banner. It still produces the news programmes for the other terrestrial commercial networks, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and even now, after diversifying into divisions which include archival company ITN Source, remains one of the most trusted companies in current affairs. 

Earlier this year the two were united as another ITN arm, ITN Productions, secured a three-year contract from the Football League to produce all of its video content. Not only did the deal combine two such familiar names, it also served as a major statement of ITN Productions’ intent as it moves deeper into the sporting sector. It will produce footage from 1,813 games across the Football League’s three divisions, as well as the Capital One Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, between now and 2018. 

“They put out a tender, originally, in the back end of last year – September-time,” recalls ITN Productions managing director Mark Browning. “We have moved ourselves into sport over the last couple of years because our view is that sport is the sibling of news. Our business is in live storytelling, fast-turnaround production, access, connectivity, and if you take the DNA of what we do – what we’re famous for doing and what we’ve been doing for the last 60 years – you can see why that is a very similar DNA to what is required to produce live sport. Which is why we’re in that space in the first place and why we got the opportunity to explore with the Football League whether we could be their partner.” 

ITN Productions’ work in sport began, naturally enough, in an alliance with another news-gathering outfit: sports news agency SNTV. Browning explains: “SNTV was a broadcast business and a rights business and they wanted to get into digital. So we partnered with them, in effect, to be their digital wing. SNTV in effect outsource SNTV Digital as a white-label service produced by ITN Productions.”

Another partnership followed in the same sector. “From that we then got into a partnership with News UK for the EPL [English soccer’s Premier League],” says Browning, “again using the live, fast-turnaround storytelling capabilities of our news organisation – and they’re a news organisation, too, so there were shared cultural benefits to the two companies – and that then widened out into other sports – cricket, rugby, and various other things.” 

At that point, News UK had secured clip rights from the Premier League – along with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and rugby union’s Aviva Premiership – which it used to pad out its digital subscription packages for online and mobile readers of newspaper titles like The Times and The Sun. With the television production already completed, ITN came in at the distribution end of proceedings. 

“That was taking the fact that we have the worldwide connectivity,” says Browning. “We can bring the games in, we have all the infrastructure – the MCR [master control room], the satellite feeds, the trucks, etc – and then we turn that round pretty much in real time into short-form digital and send it back to them. So both of those were in a similar space in terms of production and the natural next phase in our development was to go into television, doing a similar thing.”

It was then that ITN Productions caught wind of the Football League’s ambitions for its video output, conducting a review of its “entire production strategy” as it sought to redefine its place in a footballing culture dominated by the Premier League. This is a process which goes some way beyond its broadcast strategy. In June, it completed negotiations with the elite tier to increase solidarity payments to the 72 Football League clubs and link their size to the ballooning value of Premier League deals. Meanwhile, in September, it sought the services of Futurebrand to begin work on rebranding all of its competitions – a move which could yet lead to new names for its three divisions, England’s second-tier Championship, League One and League Two. 

ITN Productions’ partnership with the English Football League will help to deliver real-time match highlights to fans across multiple platforms.

The broadcast element, though, is of profound importance to those efforts, and the digital production and distribution methods that ITN is bringing in can help to modernise that output in a way that has not been possible until recently. 

“We looked at it and thought: there is a new workflow, a new technology solution, that can mean that this property, the Football League, can benefit from all of the innovation that’s going on around news gathering and take it into a sports market,” Browning explains. “So the old model was a camera operator on a gantry, a piece of kit – typically taped, still, but sometimes tapeless – but still a standalone camera. 

“The camera operator would film it, stick the camera in the boot, get in their car and drive to a playout centre – typically a BBC centre – sit with an editor, play him the tape or download the file, then edit it, then send it to IMG”, he says. “What we’re doing in the rest of our business in ITN Productions is doing stuff in real time through a digital workflow, so the opportunity to do that in sport in this case would be pretty revolutionary to what would come out the other end in terms of time, commercial opportunities and benefits to fans. It’s all done digitally; it’s all done in real time. The partner that we use is ADI. 

“So the camera operator in the gantry now plugs their camera in and the feed is sent directly to our edit machines using dark fibre and is edited in real time, and is made available in real time. As the footage is there, if Sky want it or Sunset + Vine want it and so forth, as the edits are being done, they’re able to extract them straight away. So no one’s waiting around until six or seven o’clock at night to receive the first sight of a game. 

“The producers at Sky and Sunset + Vine are able to actually see this footage as it comes in and they’re able to then harvest that as we’re editing as well for the programme,” he continues. “And the clubs obviously get it – it’s all available in a real-time solution. That’s a big change to what was done before.”

Browning is speaking to SportsPro in early September, just a few weeks after the Football League contract came into effect. The early rounds of the 2015/16 season have been completed and ITN Productions has already been given an insight into the size of the project it has undertaken. 

ITN’s production office now receives the feed from football matches in real time, meaning footage can be edited and compiled as the match is happening.

“What’s been telling since we launched it is the scale of it,” Browning admits. “We knew it was a massive-scale project but when you really see it in real life, and you consider how much is going through the system, it’s the equivalent for us of doing a general election programme every week, in the number of feeds that come through. And that is a scale that is then repeated week after week after week for multiple years.”

On the other hand, Browning and his team have noted that the new system means “the cost base is very, very different” from previous projects of that size. “Instead of having 40 people at the ends of lines, taking in feeds and recording them manually, you can have one person sitting in front of a screen and sending multiple files,” he explains. “It takes a bit of a leap of faith because computers are computers, and you see a lot of files on a screen going from red to green, but ultimately that’s the way the world is going to move – more into file-based delivery and remote production. 

“It’s important to understand that none of this footage even arrives in our building,” he adds. “It’s all done in a data centre. So you have editors here but they are, in effect, looking at servers 40 or 50 miles away, and that kind of workflow is completely revolutionary to how sport has been produced and how news has been produced, but you can see why it opens up huge opportunities.”

The primary benefit of the new model is that footage can be distributed to several recipients at once.  “You can see from that, and I think this is really where it gets to a very exciting place for sport, commercial opportunities really start to open up when you can make this content available to multiple sources in real time,” Browning suggests.

For the Football League and its clubs, this could mean several things. It could, for example, allow for clips to simply be sent directly to supporters at any time during or after games via a mobile app or online platform. It could also be built into branded content, giving greater flexibility and opportunity to prospective team or league sponsors. Clubs are also looking to take advantage of ‘beam-back’ services, allowing them to show any away game of their choosing live to supporters in their home ground, rather than depending on the selections of live broadcast partner Sky Sports. 

Already, the operation is tying directly into the Football League’s strategy in another area. On tendering for a new three-year deal earlier this year, executives at the league had been determined to get their free-to-air weekend evening TV highlights coverage out ahead of that of the Premier League, ensuring it can be watched by the very youngest fans. The previous highlights deal with the BBC had consigned the Football League to the graveyard spot: post-midnight, post-Match of the Day. 

The new highlights programme, produced by Sunset + Vine for Channel 5, begins instead in prime time – late enough for fans to return from Saturday afternoon fixtures but early enough to precede the Premier League. It would not be possible, Browning confirms, without the new distribution capacity in place.  

Data can be sent from ITN’s editing room to multiple recipients while the games are ongoing, offering enormous potential for new distribution models.

“That’s what I mean about opening up new markets and new audiences and new commercial opportunities,” notes Browning. “It’s only because of the way we’re producing this footage that the show itself can move forward by two and a half hours and become a prime time Saturday night programme. And, in all honesty, if a broadcaster wanted to do it, the stuff is available from the camera operator the moment the whistle goes at three o’clock. 

“I wouldn’t want to suggest it could be produced much earlier but the point is in the old model, whoever was producing it – and in the old model it was IMG – didn’t start viewing the footage until perhaps seven, eight o’clock at night. Now, they can literally sit in front of the monitors that we have and you can see it from one minute past three. So as a producer, you can start building your programme in real time.”

The medium-term aim for ITN Productions is to take this more accessible technology to sports outside the very highest echelons; those with a sizeable supporter base but without the infrastructure to reach it properly.

“We want to create partnerships with tier-two sports where they have previously found it off-limits. We will partner up with existing production companies where there are opportunities and we can add value to the mix, and we’ll go for business where we think our particular skills can add something different to the value proposition that’s been there before,” Browning says. “We’re not going to go out and just merrily pitch for everything that moves, but where a federation or a sport isn’t in a space that could benefit from this kind of workflow we will talk to them about that; where existing specialists, established sports production companies, want to innovate in this space, we will partner with them.”

The openings that exist in the broadcast production space may herald an influx of companies with similar news-gathering and distribution expertise to ITN. Still, Browning believes that making a meaningful contribution will require a genuine commitment. 

“The complexities of sport always require specialists,” he insists. “What I think this allows us to do is, and I’m not sure many other companies have that capability, the reason we have moved into the sports market is that we think it’s a natural fit with what we do at the moment. Clearly the Football League did, too, and I think this kind of innovation really will come into play – it’ll certainly benefit some of the tier-one sports –but it opens up, for the first time, tier-two federations and sports and associations to genuinely being able to get into the sports rights, television rights and digital rights market, where they haven’t previously been able to.”

For its part, ITN’s vision for its role in sports broadcasting does not end with its current activities. Browning aims to bring a fuller range of its capabilities into the industry.  

“Well, along with the other ones that we’ve established it’s part of a narrative,” he says of the Football League partnership. “The journey we’ve been on in the last couple of years, this is just the next phase of it. We started in digital, arguably, with sports news, moved into digital sports production, now moved into television sports production. The natural next part of that, which will be the final phase, would be sports programme-making, for which we’ve got a pipeline of ideas and a number of conversations ongoing, whereby we will actually not just produce the footage but make the programmes.”

For a company in the business of stories, this could be an intriguing development in the story of its business.