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Going deep with Discovery: The Olympic deal that transformed Eurosport perceptions

The €1.3 billion deal that gave Discovery the European rights to the Olympics through 2024 fundamentally altered the industry view of Eurosport. As senior executives reveal, it also revolutionised the pay-TV broadcaster from within.

28 March 2019 Eoin Connolly

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From the moment Discovery took a 51 per cent stake in pan-European broadcaster Eurosport at the start of 2014, speculation grew as to what its potential would be.

Now able to call upon the considerable resources of its new parent, which completed a full takeover in July 2015, a channel with a reputation for delivering second-tier and niche events was being linked with some of the biggest rights in circulation. Internally, as long-serving rights acquisition SVP Laurent Prud’homme recalls, the new regime was looking for something that could make a statement – serving notice of Eurosport’s new clout while underlining its heritage and identity.

David Zaslav, president and chief executive of what is now Discovery Inc, and Jean-Briac Perrette, chief executive of Discovery Networks International, were part of a clutch of veterans of NBC, the long-time home of the Olympic Games in the US. As a result, they had existing relationships with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and had caught word of an opportunity to put something together.  

The numbers were there, and a partnership would build on Eurosport’s specialisms in winter sports, cycling, tennis and athletics. Dick Ebersol, the former NBC Sports chairman and a seminal figure in modern Olympic broadcasting, was willing to further vouch for Discovery’s credibility and intent in Lausanne.

“Zaslav said, ‘OK. Let’s work on it,’” says Prud’homme, speaking to SportsPro at Eurosport’s Paris headquarters in January. “And when JB proposed this to the board, I think it took us five minutes to say, ‘Yes. We go and we invest.’”

After what Perrette describes as a “multi-month conversation” with IOC president Thomas Bach, television and marketing services managing director Timo Lumme and Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi, a landmark €1.3 billion contract was signed in June 2015. Discovery and Eurosport had taken the rights across 50 territories – all of Europe except Russia – to all Olympic Games until 2024.

Prud’homme’s eyes were opened to a vastly different era. “If you ask about the biggest change from the TF1 time to the Discovery time,” he says, “for me that’s the ultimate example.”

“In these situations, if it’s just one way, it doesn’t always work out the way you want it,” says Perrette. “They also had a need, which is that they felt like the Olympics in Europe needed a bit of a reinvention and needed to be more attractive and target the younger demographics and reach the younger demographics in a different way, bring in more audiences and try and drive more innovation that they want the brand associated with. So it was a big move for them.

“Never in the history of the Olympics in Europe had there been one single rights holder across the entire continent. And president Bach, who was still relatively new in his tenure there, he made a really bold and courageous move.”

Discovery and Eurosport had taken the rights across 50 territories – all of Europe except Russia – to all Olympic Games until 2024.

The Olympics set Eurosport with a technical and commercial challenge that served as an invaluable stimulus. Going into PyeongChang 2018, sublicensing deals were signed with free-to-air partners like the UK’s BBC – in line with IOC guidelines relating to the potential reach of broadcast coverage – while content agreements were lined up with the Olympic Channel and the likes of Snapchat. Eurosport Player, the company’s own subscription OTT service, was also geared up to show concurrent streams from every live event.

“Part of our ambition that we committed to with the IOC was to try and bring the Olympics to more people than ever before and more screens than ever before, and certainly try and engage the younger demographic in a much bigger way,” Perrette says. “Part of that is partnering with Facebook and Twitter and others that we did, so being in the places where that demo exists and lives on a more regular basis.

“Part of it, creatively, is also coming up with things,” he continues. “We found that a lot of that generation wants to hear something much more authentic. Authenticity is so important to them. They don’t want to feel like it’s overly produced. So we had camera crews coming down the mountain, in the vans, interviewing people right off the slope before they were coming into the IBC and the more institutional setting, hearing about what their really raw emotion is by interviewing them in the back of the van.”

One of the great things about that was that the talent, as they heard about it, it was a draw – a magnet for them to come to us first because they wanted to tell their story in a new, different way

Jean-Briac Perrette, chief executive of Discovery

Eurosport Cube, an AR-based analysis tool developed for PyeongChang in which presenters could effectively walk around inside footage, was also an asset. “One of the great things about that was that the talent, as they heard about it, it was a draw – a magnet for them to come to us first because they wanted to tell their story in a new, different way,” Perrette says.

Faced with the change in delivery methods – and an eight or nine-hour time difference between South Korea and the 48 territories in which it carried coverage – Discovery also worked with Publicis to develop a new measurement metric, Total Video, to supplant classic live viewing figures. It recorded a total of 4.5 billion video views, and 1.7 billion of hours of video watched, across its own platforms and those of its TV and social media partners.  

For Dave Schafer, Discovery’s senior vice president of sports operations and planning, the Olympic project has marked the “turning point” in the cultural transformation of Eurosport under its new owner. “We had 1,000 people on site, we had 1,200 people back in Europe, and we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” he says. “So everyone held hands and we delivered. And I think that allowed the company to believe – it was a proving point for us to now make the change across all sport.”

PyeongChang 2018 was Eurosport and Discovery's first Winter Olympics broadcast under a nine-year deal worth €1.3 billion

The practical legacy of PyeongChang coverage will be a huge investment in an ambitious cloud-based production hub – based on the system in place for the Games – which will centralise staff access to content and build considerable flexibility into Eurosport’s workflow. Financially, the Olympic deal is also paying off, with “the vast majority of the economics” of the original agreement covered by sub-licensing free-to-air rights to broadcasters across Europe.

“Between that, the digital money, the ad sales money, the affiliate value, it’s been a good investment for us,” Perrette says.

The current contract ends after the “crowning moment” of Paris 2024. Inevitably, discussion will soon turn to renewal. “We’re constantly thinking about it,” says Perrette. “The reality is, right now, we haven’t got our first Summer Games done. I think that’s part of the thing that we’re trying to digest.”

Screening Tokyo 2020 (organisation president Yoshiro Mori, left) will be a task three times bigger than PyeongChang, and opening discussions on how to execute it were held with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) last summer.

“For us, it will be more of a remote production,” says Schafer. “You’re going to see a lot more done from Europe, especially with the number of feeds coming back. I think our footprint on site will probably be more content-based, to go out and tell those stories.”

“And I’m sure at the right time,” Perrette confirms, “we’ll have follow-up conversations with the IOC.”

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