MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; TELEVISED FOOTBALL: International football opts for subscription TV’s cash bonus

National channels are the losers in Fifa’s new rights deal, Alasdair Reid writes

National channels are the losers in Fifa’s new rights deal, Alasdair

Reid writes

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.