Eurosport hits an ace in competitive game of TV rights

Discovery-owned network is warming up for new era of watchability

 Novak Djokovic  hits a forehand during the men’s singles final  at the 2016 French Open  which is now on Eurosport. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic hits a forehand during the men’s singles final at the 2016 French Open which is now on Eurosport. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

 

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Eurosport – enough for my head to be stuck in an advertising loop for bet-in-play bookmakers (“when the fun stops, stop”), tech brands and Airbnb. Did you know Ray Winstone gambles responsibly at Bet 365? Or that Boris Becker trades with 24 Option? You do if you’ve been watching Eurosport.

In the future, it seems a safe bet that more people in this corner of Europe will be watching Eurosport. That’s because the Eurosport of the future will no longer be the home of obscure cycling races and not much else. Already, the network, launched in 1989 and available here via pay-TV platforms in the form of Eurosport UK and Eurosport 2, is more than random pelotons of Lycra zooming down the side of an Italian mountain.

For a start, it’s got the tennis. Obviously on the spectrum of mass television events and national conversations, tennis doesn’t quite compete with Euro 2016, but I like it, and it does very nicely for the network, with audiences on the rise for its coverage of the three “other” Grand Slam tournaments – the French, US and Australian Opens. It is now about to add Wimbledon to the mix, sharing live coverage with the budget-scraping BBC on the proviso that its evening highlights programme does not clash with Clare Balding’s.

Tennis on Eurosport UK is presented by Rob Curling, one-time host of forgotten daytime quiz classic Turnabout, although it is the pan-European magazine show Game, Set and Mats, featuring former champion Mats Wilander and retired Austrian player Barbara Schett (her surname sadly not incorporated into the show title), that rounds up the daily action with the kind of continental second-language aplomb that would no doubt irk a xenophobic Brexiter.

Inevitably for a commercial operation, Eurosport can be brash, but it is also, by definition, less given than other broadcasters to paroxysms of flag-waving and less tempted to inflate all sport into pompous, life-or-death, gladiatorial occasions complete with slow-motion promos and quotes from dead poets. Instead, it has John McEnroe and Eric Cantona mucking about in a series of hypnotically bad comedy sketches.

Essentially, the Olympics, from 2018 in most European countries and from 2022 in Britain and France, appear to be in safe safe hands. Its €1.3 billion rights grab was announced last September, soon after Eurosport was bought outright from France’s TF1 Group by Discovery Communications. The deal with the International Olympic Committee signalled a changing of the guard and made Discovery a player in the sports sub-licensing market.

Various local broadcasting regulations and the IOC’s desire for the Games to be watched by as many millions as possible meant it was required to do business with free-to-air broadcasters.

The Olympics deal with the BBC was struck in February and separate contracts were signed in the Czech Republic, Finland and the Netherlands. An Irish agreement with RTÉ was announced last week at a Discovery press conference in Paris, clearing the path for Discovery Networks executive Dee Forbes to take up her new role as director-general of RTÉ.

The details released were scant, but it was noted that RTÉ’s package for Tokyo 2020 included digital rights to the content it broadcasts on its linear channel (which means RTÉ2, unless something radical happens). Eurosport, however, will be able to use its more extensive rights to create buzz around the network and bring in the dollars for the Maryland, US-headquartered company.

Eurosport finished 2015 by ditching its 26-year-old “ring of stars” logo, with chief executive Peter Hutton admitting the makeover was designed to shed the “baggage” of its reputation as a home for second-tier, cheaper-than-chips sport. But some rights are likely to stay beyond its ambition.

Discovery is 10 per cent owned by the US billionaire “cable cowboy” John Malone, the controller of Liberty Media and chairman of the spun-off Liberty Global, the ultimate parent of TV3.

Both Discovery and Liberty Global have said they won’t be going after the English Premier League, a hugely expensive battle for which has been waged by BT and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky. In Discovery’s case, it would be a commercially difficult manoeuvre, as it has carriage deals in place with BT and Sky.

Still, there are plenty more “jewels in the crown”, as Hutton calls them, for Eurosport to invest in without costing the company its head. While it hasn’t yet got around to dressing its pundits as French aristocrats (as the BBC has done for its Euro 2016 promo), it has started to up its production values, improve its watchability and challenge for the medal positions for the first time.

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