If sport is not a ‘game changer’ for Eir, what will be?

Cantillon: Its rights ambitions likely faded with regime change, long before Covid-19

The world of sports broadcast rights can be cut-throat, with examples abounding of glorious land grabs turning into humiliating early exits.

The world of sports broadcast rights can be cut-throat, with examples abounding of glorious land grabs turning into humiliating early exits.

 

Eir is sitting out the latest sports rights auctions and “exploring options” for Eir Sport. They don’t look great.

If Eir Sport was a football game, it would be one packed with incident, from early bravado and deft strikes to bruising tackles and own-goals. And yet somehow, instead of being thoroughly entertained, viewers would switch channels at the final whistle and wonder what the point of all that was.

This is a saga that began in December 2015 when Eir bought Setanta Sports Ireland. The deal included the Irish rights to distribute BT Sport, which had – and still has – what could legitimately be hailed as “a compelling range of exclusive sports content”.

Exclusive rights

According to Eir’s then chief executive, Richard Moat, it was a “game-changer for Eir”. The following July, Setanta was rebranded as Eir Sport on the same day that it announced it had won rights for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Although Eir had a new pay-TV service, its big play was really an echo of BT Sport’s UK tactic: use exclusive sports rights to pursue the ultimate goal of selling broadband. From autumn 2016, the Eir Sport pack was offered free to Eir broadband customers.

Then came a series of spats with Virgin Media Ireland, which had – and still has – sporting ambitions of its own. An even more damaging development was the loss in 2019 of its rights to distribute soccer-laden BT Sport, which were snapped up by ultra-smooth Sky.

Commercial model

What went wrong? The world of sports broadcast rights can be cut-throat, with examples abounding of glorious land grabs turning into humiliating early exits. Eir’s statement highlighted pandemic-caused disruptions to the sporting calendar and its commercial model (thanks to all those closed pubs).

But it seems likely that the withdrawal announced this week was on the cards long before Covid-19. All of Eir’s rights deals were made when it was led by Moat and counted New York hedge fund Anchorage Capital as its largest investor.

In 2018, Eir’s takeover by companies connected to French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel coincided with the departure of Moat and other executives, including head of Eir TV and Eir Sport Glen Killane. By the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup came round, industry-watchers were speculating that Eir Sport was considering retirement.

Another push, when the time is right, can’t be ruled out. As it stands, a red card for Eir Sport will do nothing to strengthen the appeal of the overall Eir product.

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