The market for new-media advertising sales across football websites has undergone a recent sea change. The status quo, set in stone for the past two years, has been upset by the emergence of a new digital sales house called Aura Sports.
In the space of little over a month since launching, the operation has struck deals, via BSkyB, to represent six Premier League clubs, almost a third of the market.
Until now, advertising sales across the majority of the digital properties of the big Premier League clubs has remained firmly with a handful of the big broadcasters. Granada, ntl and Sky have been the major players, controlling the digital operations of 16 of the 20 clubs following the formation of joint ventures and the acquisition of digital rights during the dotcom rush of 1999 and 2000.
Granada has joint venture online operations with Arsenal and Liverpool; Sky still runs the digital sales operation for Tottenham Hotspur but has partnered with Aura Sports for sales across the websites of West Ham, Southampton, Chelsea, Leeds United, Manchester City and Sunderland football clubs.
Ntl, through its sports rights and content subsidiary Premium TV (PTV), runs the official websites for 78 football clubs, including Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion within the Premier League.
It is a somewhat surprising time for a start-up, especially given the depressed conditions in the online advertising market. But Paul Wright, the managing director and co-founder of Aura Sports, believes that now is the right time for a specialist to enter the market.
"Costs for clubs have spiralled, especially in regard to players. Revenue needs to be increased and clubs can use the benefits of a specialist," Wright says.
Adrian Ford, the commercial services director at Granada Sport and Interactive, believes that not too much should be read into BSkyB bringing in Aura Sports to help out. He argues that it is purely about maximising revenue.
Ford says: "Selling pure advertising on football club sites is not the easiest for a number of reasons. One major issue is that portals take a lot of the advertisers because of their size. On that basis, Sky decided the best set-up to maximise the value of online advertising sales was to bring in a third party. Small and nimble can be good."
Manchester United is arguably the biggest digital draw in the world of football. In August last year it reacquired its digital rights from TWI Interactive, a subsidiary of Mark McCormack's sports management group IMG.
It did so to give it more control over driving revenues online and to tap into a global fan base of more than 55 million. Manchester United now uses the digital sales operation of the portal Lycos as part of a global deal to expand the club's international online presence.
Ben Hatton, the business development director at Manchester United, is convinced that there is a market for Aura Sports to step in and help the incumbent rights holders. "There is a gap in the market, the audience for sports is very specific in terms of demographics, there has been a change in advertisers' views about opportunities online with clubs."
The gap that Aura Sports is seeking to fill has in part arisen following the shakeout of a number of high-profile sports websites operations - notably Sportal and Sports.com - which has left advertisers reconsidering where best to spend their online budgets. This has made club sites a more attractive proposition.
"Placement of advertising money on websites tended to be on, say, a Sports.com or a Sky rather than an eclectic group of websites," Richard Holman, the managing director of the advertising sales network AdLINK, says.
Holman believes the entry of Aura Sports has not created a major change in the way advertisers approach online sales to Premier League club websites.
Its challenge will be to grow to take a more significant share of the market.
"To be a powerful success, sales representation needs to be across a group of sites. Aura Sports hasn't changed that, advertisers still need to go to four major players to get coverage," he says. "The ability to place an advertisement across all Premier League websites would be killer and I assume Aura Sports is trying to build a central sales point to control the market."
But does Aura Sports have much of a chance of securing similar deals with the likes of Granada and ntl to get that crucial critical mass? In a word, yes.
PTV, the subsidiary of ntl that runs the 78 football sites for which it has the digital rights, has, since the start of the year, been outsourcing the digital sales operation to IDS (formerly Flextech Sales).
IDS is now pulling out of online sales to focus on its television sales operation. PTV and the seven Premier League club websites it has are now seeking a third-party sales house. It has shortlisted Aura Sports, Real Media and AdLINK.
Given the number of football websites that Aura Sports currently represents, it is in a strong position to win the business and secure the sales rights to almost three-quarters of the Premier League clubs available. This would make it a powerful player for attracting advertisers who want a simplified way of reaching a large number of dedicated football fans.
"The power of football is based on the extreme loyalty that clubs have," Wright says. "Research has shown that only 11 per cent of people change their club loyalty. From an advertiser's view, if they can break into that across a large number of sites in one try, it is far more powerful than a regular digital property."