Eleven eyes UK comeback and wide-ranging global rights in new strategic focus
By Tariq Saleh
Eleven Sports, the international subscription broadcaster, is adopting a new approach by targeting lower-tier rights in big markets as part of its global expansion strategy, with a return to the UK to complete an "unfinished story" high on the company’s long-term vision, chief executive Luis Vicente has revealed.
The broadcaster currently operates in Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Taiwan, Japan and Myanmar but is seeking to expand its footprint and this week launched a rebrand, new verticals and a new digital global hub to accelerate these plans.
The group outlined its ‘2.0 strategy’ to mark its five-year anniversary and is initially focused on its core European markets of Portugal, Italy and Belgium, where its domestic five-year deal for soccer's Pro League begins this weekend, but will be expanded to the broadcaster’s other territories in early 2021.
Eleven already offers prominent soccer and other sports properties in the eight countries where it is active but is keen to develop a presence in other key markets and believes it can succeed with a strategy it has used in Italy by obtaining rights to lower-tier competitions.
In Italy, Eleven offers live streaming of the lower-tier Serie C and Serie D soccer leagues and is now seeking to use its new Eleven Next vertical to follow a similar template and feature local sport to get into larger markets.
In an online media roundtable, Vicente (pictured) said: “We looked at where the untapped opportunities were and long tail, and what we call new tail, opportunities which were not being prioritised at scale by anyone. On that, we looked at some of the examples we have in the business and when you look at what will be Eleven Next, it will be focused on the second-tier and third-tier of football worldwide and also the second and third-tier sports.
“Because when you look at examples of these two areas, for instance in Italy, we have been operating for some years with Serie C as our prime content because that is part of our strategy of entering big markets and going with small rights.
“Serie C has been a massive success because when we started, not many people believed we could build a subscription model around this type of content. We proved it can be built and can be delivered at scale and be a successful business.
“These clubs have 5,000 loyal fans that want to consume everything that is relating to their clubs, so no different to the passion we see in the big brands as well in sports and that gave us an enlightening idea of how we could expand this into a more global scale.”
One major market where Vicente believes this approach will work is in the UK, where Eleven launched in 2018 but eventually scaled back its plans, relinquishing live rights it acquired to Spain's LaLiga and Italy's Serie A, admitting it could not compete with the country’s dominant pay-TV rights-holders Sky and BT Sport.
The broadcaster repositioned itself as an OTT-only platform, with sports news clips and documentaries, after being unable to strike carriage deals with the leading pay-TV platforms.
Eleven has continued to explore potential opportunities in that market and is confident it will have the right model to return to the UK in the future.
Vicente said: “The UK for us is still an unfinished story and we believe that we will be back, not necessarily in the same way we tried before, but this new area we are interacting with such as esports, women’s sports, second-tier football and second-tier sports gives us a chance to consider a comeback and that is something that we are looking at, subject to the rights that we want becoming available.
“We are not going to repeat the same mistakes but it is definitely something we would like to come back to because we still have a story to finish in the UK and that is something now for me, who is responsible for the future of our company, that I would like to make a success with in a different angle and a different way but there is an unbelievable opportunity in the UK for these kind of sports.
“It is probably the country in the world where amateur sports and semi-professional sports is massive and where there is a massive interest. We are definitely trying to become a player in the UK again.”
Eleven also scaled back its operations in USA after launching in the country in 2017 but has no immediate plans to make a return.
Outlining the company’s approach to the US, Vicente added: “It is a very tough market and a market which will be in our considerations from a long-term view, not in the short-term or medium-term.
“It is a market, in our view, which requires potentially a connection with an existing player because for you to start something from scratch there, it is almost impossible to succeed. It is such an intense, robust and mature market that you do not really have a lot of chances to survive on your own if you start from scratch unless you are a massive company.
“A small organisation like ours will need to think about this more closely. It is in our plans but we cannot indicate when we are going to be able to announce or materialise our plans for a return to the US market.”
Eleven’s strategy will continue to be based on its OTT and social platforms but there are new areas of focus in terms of content, with the Eleven Women and Eleven Esports verticals to be launched alongside Eleven Next, which are intended to reflect areas of growing demand from viewers.
The broadcaster’s new digital global hub will also show content from its three new verticals to international audiences while Vicente revealed “we are at the moment negotiating a lot of rights with hundreds of sports rights holders around the world.”
Eleven also outlined “ambitious content plans to secure more premium rights across Eleven’s key markets in the months ahead.”
Vicente, who was appointed as chief executive in December, said: “We are now working on a lot of renewals of our existing rights but also on some new rights not just for the markets we operate but also the new markets we are going to open and our new platform.”
As well as looking to build its profile worldwide, Eleven is also targeting further premium rights in its existing markets to follow on from its deal with Belgium's Pro League.
At the time, Eleven described the deal as a “milestone” and now believes it can serve as a game-changer in its efforts to become a dominant player in other markets.
The broadcaster agreed a five-year deal, and Vicente hopes this will attract the interest of other mid-sized European leagues looking to challenge the continent’s big five of England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy.
The Eleven chief explained: “The interesting thing about Belgium is that it was the first time we bought all the domestic rights of the main football league and it was the first time a top-eight European football league granted their rights to a non-traditional player because Eleven is not a traditional media player which we believe will be a great example.
“Also, from many discussions we have been having with many leagues across Europe, it is a great example for many other leagues because if you are a mid-size or a lower-size league in Europe and you want to compete with the big five leagues, how can you compete?
“So basically we are giving the Belgian Pro League an amplification of their competitiveness and how they can build a global brand in a different way.”
Eleven’s rights vary from market to market but include major soccer competitions such as LaLiga, Serie A, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Europe’s Uefa Champions League, Formula 1 motor racing and NBA basketball, as well as domestic sports within particular territories.
Vicente is hopeful Eleven can secure renewals for many of its premium rights but has called on rights-holders to adapt their models in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and expects to see a significant change in the media rights market.
He said: “Overall, I think the rights [fees] are coming down. The domestic rights will still build a bit over time because of the relevance of the domestic market. If you look at the UK for example, BT and Sky still want to have the Premier League rights and do not want it to go to somebody else, so as long as they can afford it they will keep buying it.
“It is a very different case for the international rights, which also of course for the big brands and the big properties has been another important pillar of their revenue strategy and for many years the traditional model for rights acquisition always depended on two pillars because if you only have one, you are not going to get the right monetisation for your rights so you need a minimum of two.
“Historically, over the years many of the second players in many markets disappear and now sometimes there is only one player, which is not good news when you are a rights-holder. Historically, the situation keeps changing but there is an overarching problem which is still related to the traditional model of sports.
“That model today is clearly under threat because the risk cannot just be on the media company’s side. Even before Covid-19, many media rights companies already started to have problems on having a much lower return on investment than they predicted which then creates messy problems.”
He continued: “I believe that the industry will move into a more hybrid model and I have been a big advocate of that and I am a fearless believer that the model will be decentralised in a way that exclusivity is not going to be so much at the centre but you will have to open that exclusivity in order for you to absorb any kinds of potential media distributors.
“The old idea that one entity will come with a big cheque may not be so safe anymore so you need to work with the free-to-air companies, digital platforms, OTT services, have your own direct-to-consumer platform and still work with the pay-TV and pay-per-view companies but you need to now have a more complex model if you want to succeed in this industry.”