Francis: Next domestic EPL tender a gauge of Covid-19's lasting impact on TV
By Jonathan Rest
Changes to the Premier League media landscape necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic could have a lasting impact on future contracts for English soccer’s elite, Barney Francis, one of the UK’s most revered sports broadcast executives, has predicted.
The domestic rights tender for the season beginning 2022-23 should, if previous cycles are mirrored, be released towards the end of this year, with the rights awarded from February 2021.
The tender will be coming out at a time when, because of Covid-19 shutting out spectators, UK soccer fans have become accustomed to having every match available to watch live, including in the previously sacred 3pm Saturday afternoon blackout window.
The 2020-21 Premier League season gets under way on Saturday and, with games set to take place behind closed doors until 1 October at the very earliest because of the pandemic, it was confirmed this week that all September matches will be shown live by the league’s three domestic live broadcast partners, Sky, BT Sport and Amazon, with one game reserved for public-service network the BBC.
The same quartet showed every game at the back end of last season when the Premier League resumed, behind closed doors, after a three-month break.
It means the total number of games to be televised during the 2020-21 season currently stands at 233 – it is contracted at 200 – but that number could rise further should concerns over a fresh wave of the pandemic force fans to stay away from grounds for longer than envisaged.
As to whether broadcasters could be in line for more inventory, Francis, who spent over a decade as managing director of Sky Sports, the dominant Premier League rights-holder, told Sportcal: “We’ll soon find out when October 1st comes. The news of banning gatherings of more than six people [as the UK government has done from next week] does not help. But if fans are allowed to go back on October 1st that will give us an indication of the broadcast situation.
“But really you’re looking for when the Premier League comes to market in the UK. That is only when we’ll know how the future will play out.”
Francis, who will officially cut ties with Sky at the end of this year, having announced his exit in January, 10 months after taking on a global role as chief executive of future sport following Sky’s takeover by USA’s Comcast, continued: “I’m not intimate with the reasonings of the clubs’ decision this week, but I can take an educated view: the clubs realise that they have sold fans a season ticket, but you cannot turn up or see the game anywhere.
“If you can see the game anywhere, on any TV service, you’ll start thinking, 'why I am I then paying for this season ticket?' I think this does help to protect the club/season ticket holder relationship by every game being made available, but those games are not, to my knowledge, being monetised. There’s not additional rights fees coming in from all the broadcasters in the UK.
“It is purely to protect season ticket holders who would otherwise be really frustrated. So I think it is a really good move by all concerned to show every game in September, if nothing else than it protects the existing revenues.”
This Saturday’s clash between Crystal Palace and Southampton will be broadcast live by BT Sport at 3pm, a window previously off limits to UK broadcasters.
With that blackout lifted, there will be pressure for it to remain the case even when fans return to stadia.
Francis said: “I can see why it’s happened now. We all know the reasons why it was put in place. Clearly there is going to be no material impact on [attendance at] football league games because no one can go to them either. It is very much of the moment. We’ll find out soon enough if it will change when the Premier League comes to market again.
“It seems to me to be the right solution for the moment to make all those games freely available. If we are allowed to go back to stadiums, then we will return to the old argument.”
In recent months, Sky has reached agreements with the second-tier English Football League and the Scottish Premiership related to streaming of matches while grounds are closed off to fans.
Sky is already contracted to televise 130 live EFL matches, but all games not shown by the broadcaster will be available for streaming by clubs on iFollow, the league's dedicated streaming service, or their own equivalent platforms, and for £10 ($12.90) each for supporters without season tickets.
In Scotland, where Sky is contracted to show 48 games each season, top-flight clubs have been given the green light to sell all their matches to fans through pay-per-view streaming platforms, except for those being shown by the broadcaster.
Helping sports brands achieve their commercial growth objectives, particularly through direct-to-consumer revenue streams, is something WePlay, the UK sports marketing agency whose advisory board Francis joined today, specialises in.
A team-specific streaming package is the ultimate DTC experience, and is something widely available in the US major leagues, but Francis said the market dynamics do not make it a long-term viability in the UK.
He explained: “Take the NFL, for example, which is spread amongst all broadcast networks. But it’s in a country of over 320 million people, around 130 million households. So the NFL will go on CBS, Fox and NBC at the weekend, it's all free-to-air, and every year 29 of the top 30 TV programmes are NFL and that is where the advertising revenue is.
“And Fox do not mind that Thursday Night Football is also on the NFL Network or also available on Amazon Prime because they know everyone at home is going to watch it on TV because it’s on free-to-air.
“It’s a very different model and unfortunately our population isn’t big enough here for the commercial free-to-air networks to support the sport to the finances it needs. The idea you’re going to get a hybrid model, where every Premier League game that Sky, BT and Amazon shows is also available in another form, that is just going to eat away at the subscription revenues to those three services, and therefore the value of those rights is going to be diminished and then you are in a spiralling sports economy.”
Another prominent feature of the US sports broadcasting landscape has been long-term rights deals, of between eight and 12 years in length, whereas the Premier League has traditionally sold its rights, particularly in Europe, in three-year cycles.
However, earlier this year the league broke from the mould, signing a six-year deal across the Nordics with NENT Group, while Spain’s LaLiga has been offering up five-year contracts in its tenders in recent months, and Uefa has been marketing six-year, as opposed to four-year, rights deals for European Championships and World Cup qualifiers from 2022 to 2028.
The assumption is that, considering the uncertain financial situation caused by the pandemic, rights-owners are looking for longer-term security.
Francis said: “Confidence in the broadcast market has certainly ebbed and flowed. We have had an incredible 10 years in the Premier League of huge inflation in both domestic and overseas rights. You can imagine that’s been a great time for clubs, although of course it was firstly stipulated by Brussels that it had to be three yeas and then by [communications regulator] Ofcom.
“Now, less bound by those regulations, it allows the Premier League to think differently. Because of the uncertainty, you’d imagine right now the clubs would rather have the long-term deals, whereas they certainly were more bullish over the last decade of saying 'let’s go every three years because everyone wants our stuff'.
“All will be revealed over the next six months or so when the Premier League comes to market.”