National channels are the losers in Fifa’s new rights deal, Alasdair
Fifa, football’s worldwide organising body, has nothing against
advertising. Quite the reverse, in fact. During the past ten years
football around the globe has done rather nicely out of the marketing
industry spend that has come via television, and the line between
football as sport and football as business has become increasingly
blurred. Purists may not like it, but the game has never been stronger
or more popular.
Advertising, though, may no longer be good enough. Fifa has seen the
future and it is called subscription TV. That’s the conclusion to draw
from its decision last week to sell TV rights for two World Cups to a
consortium including the Swiss marketing company, ISL, and the German
media baron, Leo Kirch. For pounds 1.46 billion, they get rights to both
the 2002 and the 2006 tournaments.
Previously, European television rights to the World Cup were given as a
matter of course to the European Broadcasting Union, the club that
represents the interests of Europe’s nominally public service
broadcasting channels - including the BBC and ITV. Channels in each
country would then divvy up into the EBU kitty according to an agreed
formula. In a deal negotiated as far back as 1983, the EBU agreed to pay
pounds 32 million for the 1998 tournament.
The Kirch/ISL deal is a radical departure from this cosy arrangement.
For a start, it involves a much larger sum of money. To maximise a
return on that investment, the rights will be auctioned country by
country - and that in turn means that the winners are likely to be
subscription channels. It’s no coincidence that Kirch is leading the
race to introduce digital subscription TV to the German market.
Both Kirch and Joseph Blatter, Fifa’s secretary-general, say that the
universal-access terrestrial channels would be guaranteed coverage of
both tournaments. The wording was such that we are left in little doubt
that, when it comes down to it, coverage would mean highlights coverage.
This is just the latest indication that conventional TV channels can
expect to kiss goodbye to live coverage of major sporting events.
Although the big sports once needed universal-access TV coverage to
build mass appeal, they completed that growth stage years ago. We’re all
hooked. Now that addiction is ripe for exploitation.
As Sky Sports has proved, subscription is a very big business indeed -
it certainly delivers more revenue than advertising could.
This is not good news for terrestrial commercial broadcasters across
Europe. But for at least one, ITV, the prospect of losing access to one
of the world’s greatest sporting events will be greeted with mixed
feelings. Many in the network will be relieved that they will no longer
need to face the humiliation of major tournament coverage being trounced
by the BBC.
ITV and BBC both covered the Euro ’96 semi-final and final. In terms of
adult viewers, the semi-final result was: BBC, 17 million, ITV, six
You’d think that, when both ITV and the BBC cover a tournament, ITV
would be sensitive to the fact that direct comparisons will be made.
Surely it should pull out all the stops? In the event, ITV coverage of
Euro ’96 was so inept that some ask if it deserves to cover big
Simon Cox, broadcast director of CIA Medianetwork, disagrees. ‘It is
fashionable to criticise ITV, but it wasn’t so bad. There were just as
many inane comments coming from Jimmy Hill on the BBC. If ITV and the
BBC swapped coverage, the BBC would still win by the same margin. This
is about people not liking ads in big games.’
Which is the point. Except in the future, courtesy of Leo Kirch, they
will have to pay a lot more than the licence fee for the privilege of
enjoying an ad-free environment.