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Building a pan-European sports OTT platform: Inside Eurovision Sport’s mission to democratise sports broadcasting in the digital era

Eurovision Sport has played a critical role in delivering major sporting events to European television screens ever since the 1954 Fifa World Cup. Executive director Glen Killane tells SportsPro about the future of public service broadcasting and why its new OTT platform can deliver a platform for growth for rights holders.

28 November 2022 Steve McCaskill
Building a pan-European sports OTT platform: Inside Eurovision Sport’s mission to democratise sports broadcasting in the digital era

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The term ‘Eurovision’ is largely synonymous with over-the-top ballads, elaborate staging, and allegations of political voting. But the Eurovision Song Contest is only one, albeit the most high profile, of several activities performed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

Formed in 1950, the EBU’s Eurovision network of 4,000 interconnected landlines enabled the advent of cross-border sports coverage decades before the dawn of satellite technology.

This infrastructure gave members access to a pool of common cultural and sports programming that included not just the eponymous song contest but also the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland – the first occasion that soccer fans could watch their national team play a match on foreign soil.

Fast forward seven decades and the EBU still performs a key role in the sports broadcasting industry, representing more than 100 public service broadcasters across Europe. Indeed, large swathes of the continent will be watching the ongoing Fifa World Cup in Qatar thanks to a deal brokered by the organisation.

Greater coordination in the sporting calendar

The Eurovision model might have been in existence for nearly 70 years but Killane believes Olympic and minority sports must adopt new models and technologies to drive interest and improve accessibility. This, he argues, will amplify the impact of widespread free-to-air (FTA) coverage and attract younger demographics that increasingly consume sport via digital platforms.

The EBU is one of the key partners behind the European Championships, a multi-sport event in which nine international federations hold their continental championships at the same time, in the same city. The hope is that by creating something greater than the sum of its parts, each federation will attract higher audiences and engagement than they would do in isolation.

Both the EBU and its members were delighted with the viewing figures recorded during the 2022 edition in Munich. However, the future of the event is unclear after European Athletics declared it intends to hold a standalone event in Birmingham in 2026.

But even if athletics isn’t part of the next edition, Killane believes the concept has stated the case for greater cooperation.

“The European Championships showed the case for aggregation,” he said. “The same thing is happening with the [unified] world cycling championships in Glasgow next summer. The winter sports get together and create a unified schedule, so the smaller sports leverage the platform given to them by the bigger sports.

“I think taking existing events in the calendar, coordinating schedules, is the way forward.”

Live and free across a continent

The makeup of the EBU is hugely diverse. It encompasses huge media organisations like the BBC and France Televisions, mid-sized broadcasters like RTE in Ireland and SGR SSR in Switzerland, and those with a much smaller footprint, such as Andorra’s RTVA and Monaco’s MMD. Vatican City, which only has a radio station, is also a member.

The size and scope of this membership means Eurovision Sport is able to pool resources and leverage economies of scale to obtain continent-wide rights deals for its members. While some rights holders might be confident of achieving more lucrative deals by negotiating on a country-by-country basis, this requires significant resources and there is no guarantee of greater revenue.

By working with Eurovision, rights holders gain access to a huge array of markets and receive exposure on public service broadcast channels across the continent, creating a platform for growth and opening the door to more lucrative commercial deals. For Olympic sports like athletics, aquatics, cycling and winter sports, reach is crucial.

In most cases, the EBU’s bids for pan-European rights are fully guaranteed by its members. However, in some instances, it will acquire rights with only partial backing and offer first refusal to non-committed broadcasters. For certain events it will only seek the rights in selected countries. For example, the UK was not included in Eurovision’s deal for Qatar 2022 as the BBC and ITV negotiated directly with Fifa.

There’s no aversion to working with non-member broadcasters to get deals over the line, either. A prominent example of this cooperation is the Tour de France, where Eurosport has non-exclusive rights outside the host nation.

“It’s a very solid model given the fluctuations in the [rights] market but we do recognise we need partnerships to make some of these things work,” Glen Killane, Eurovision Sport executive director, tells SportsPro. “We want to grow the assets we have which are predominantly tier two, tier three sports … and those are the sports that are struggling the most to get their content out there. We believe that’s what we exist to do.

“There’s a distribution issue [in sport]. There’s a massive difference between football and basketball and Olympic sports which are trying to find a foothold in markets.

“Our members are world leaders in delivering big audiences.”

Adapting for a digital age

Of course, a combined event generates far more hours of coverage than what can be carried on linear television alone. Individual broadcasters will inevitably focus on sports that will get the highest ratings in their countries while other disciplines, such as BMX or sport climbing, might reach more interested viewers on digital platforms.

Eurovision Sport wants to help its members adapt to changing consumption habits and ensure every audience group is catered for so that rights holders receive greater value from the relationship.

Most within the sports industry are aware that younger viewers are shifting to digital channels, but the EBU has the added advantage of organising one of the most-watched television events in the world. More than 161 million people watched the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest, but digital engagement is increasing significantly.

Indeed, more than 42.3 million people watched the Eurovision Song Contest content on YouTube, while 7.6 million watched the Grand Final live on the video-sharing platform. Two thirds of the latter figure were aged between 18 and 34. Meanwhile, 3.3 million watched live coverage on TikTok.

With sport, the ambition is to harness this digital demand using owned and operated channels. However, the issue is that although some of the EBU’s members, like the BBC, might be leaders in the digital space, other broadcasters may not have as many resources at their disposal.

This means they can’t use all the content being made available to them, lowering the utility for viewers and limiting exposure for certain sports. Having pioneered the idea of a pan-European television network in the 1950s, Eurovision wants to futureproof its approach for all stakeholders by investing in a common over-the-top (OTT) platform.

“[Streaming] has been a fragmented experience for fans and a lot of rights holders have built their own applications. There’s nothing wrong with these apps, but I liken it to building cathedrals in the desert. They look fantastic, they do everything you need them to do, but nobody’s visiting.

Glen Killane, executive director, Eurovision Sport

“We need to keep innovating and keeping ahead of the curve,” says Killane. “Our priority right now is the streaming platform and repositioning our members in the digital space.

“A lot of our members are market leaders in their countries, not just in TV, but also digital, so they’re already doing a lot with technology. But for public service broadcasters who have not been able to invest massively in digital expansion, we’ll be giving them a ready-made solution.

“Our big USP is that we get to big markets, we get eyeballs, and that’s true with streaming. But the big disconnect has been there is no kind of pan-European unified digital model and that’s what our platform is attempting to achieve.

“We can now offer a joined-up digital model across all markets with a minimum [technological] standard.”

The advent of streaming and the widespread adoption of mobile technology has encouraged many rights holders to go down the DTC route. Free from the constraints of linear television, they have created their own applications to either complement or replace traditional broadcast deals with applications that offer a range of video, digital content, and interactive features.

But going DTC is no easy task. Some properties have enjoyed success, but others have struggled to stand out amid fierce competition in app stores and on social media. Killane says there is a case for aggregation in delivery, too.

“What we’re trying to do is aggregate and bring those sports together on a platform where we can build a business model that at least [breaks even] and at minimum provides exposure for sports struggling to break into these markets,” he explains.

“[Streaming] has been a fragmented experience for fans and a lot of rights holders have built their own applications. There’s nothing wrong with these apps, but I liken it to building cathedrals in the desert. They look fantastic, they do everything you need them to do, but nobody’s visiting.

“The marketing [effort] required for OTT is extraordinarily hard and if you don’t have a [big budget], you’re not going to get cut through. Our platform is free and it’s promoted by our members. We already have a ready-made market and we’re working with our members to push this content where they have no ability to broadcast it or stream it themselves. We take up that challenge and fund it via advertising.

“We want to become the free sports destination across Europe … it’s about getting rid of dark markets and ensuring every single bit of content available in a rights package gets seen.”

Becoming Europe’s OTT platform for sport

Killane says the platform, designed by Sony’s Pulselive, is “high spec” and capable of working across multiple devices. It’s currently web-based but will eventually become a mobile application and even work on connected TVs. The latter is a huge factor in adoption in the current streaming landscape.

Athletics is the first sport to be given the OTT treatment, with ‘All Athletics’ hosting content from the World Athletics Championships, the European Athletics Championships, and a range of other events.

“We’ve renewed our deal [with World Athletics] until 2029,” Killane says. “We will have every second of athletics available on this continent [on the platform]. Obviously we’re also looking at non-live programming and documentaries as well. We can say to our partners that we’re not just streaming the event, we’re actively trying to get eyeballs into the platform.

“We’re not quite there yet with athletics. We’re still in a beta phase and will look to roll this out [fully] over the next six months with a view to the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest. We’re also a worldwide partner of the European Games next year, which involves 27 sports, and 17 of these have direct qualifiers for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.”

The European Games differ from the European Championships in that the former is organised by Olympic associations. It’s an event that has struggled to establish itself on the sporting calendar since the first edition in 2015, partly because of the European Championship, but there is a belief that Olympic qualification, coupled with widespread media coverage, could prove the difference.

“I think there’s an ideal opportunity to partner with our members, the European Olympic Committees and drive exposure of that event by enabling consumption of content that hasn’t always been universally available,” says Killane.

“We’re trying to develop real expertise in multi-sport events. We have the Mediterranean Games, the European Championships, and now the European Games.”

When families across Europe settle down to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, the broadcast is preceded by the organisation’s familiar anthem. But when it comes to sport, there is no such proclamation.

Eurovision Sport operates in the background and most viewers are unaware of the organisation’s role in bringing major events to their screen. It considers its OTT venture to be critical to continuing that mission, especially in a world where subscription services threaten to take more sport behind a paywall.

“This is about the democratisation of sports consumption,” says Killane. “And that’s at the heart of what public service broadcasting is all about.”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Broadcast Week, a week of coverage assessing the state of play in sports broadcasting and streaming. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

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