The live sport drought is ending, but not before Eurosport could devote a week of its attention to a programme strand called Return to 2012, a London Olympic Games look-back in which the purple-branded stadium was revisited in its packed-house glory, while medal-winners, now retired and surviving lockdown like everybody else, revealed they couldn’t believe all that podium business was eight years ago. Indeed, it seems like longer.
Ahead of the inevitable (and likely unbearable) BBC rehash of the same events later this summer, Eurosport 2 viewers had the chance to relive such key opening ceremony moments as the spectacular formation of an Olympic cauldron from 200 copper petals, David Beckham smirking on a speedboat and Mr Bean – then regarded as the most hapless man in Britain – joining in an orchestral performance of Chariots of Fire.
The rationale for such replays goes beyond mere nostalgia for less Brexit-y, less Trumpian days, or “a time of national pride and unity” as Eurosport called it. Visits to podiums past are not even purely for schedule-filling purposes. They are components in Eurosport’s broader marketing of greater things to come – eventually.
Owned by US media giant Discovery, Eurosport was the primary broadcast and on-demand rights holder across much of Europe for Tokyo 2020. Technically, it still is, as even if the Olympics go ahead in Japan in 2021 they will still be called Tokyo 2020.
When Discovery struck its €1.3 billion deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2015, eyebrows flew like javelins on a windy night. The deal covered dozens of markets including the Republic, though there was no prospect of viewers wearing out their remotes in search of the 100m sprint. Thanks to Irish major events broadcasting regulations set by the Government and the IOC's desire to maximise its audience, Discovery and RTÉ soon agreed a sub-licensing arrangement for the main action.
Alas, five years is an epoch, and instead of revelling in the sporting joys secured by its deal with the IOC, Eurosport must suffice with giving Olympians a chance to check out just how fit they were that one summer, back when Boris Johnson’s worst mistake involved a certain overconfidence on the zip-wire. Hopes and dreams have been derailed for now.
On the day Tokyo 2020 organisers and the IOC announced the postponement of the games, Discovery retracted its full-year performance outlook for 2020, citing the “unknown impact” of the pandemic on its financial results. It also drew down $500 million from a revolving credit facility to shore up its balance sheet and, like pretty much every media company in the world this year, announced it would pursue a series of cost savings.
Since March, however, Discovery has entered the medal race for sunny corporate statements, insisting that the impact from the cancellation of the games this year will be minimal.
If that turns out to be true, it reflects a claim often made by broadcasters in vague, sanguine terms: that the cost of successfully bidding for rights and producing sporting events is often so high that the advertising revenues they bring in are hard pushed to match up. A splurge on rights is deemed “strategic”.
For Discovery, the Olympics venture was as much about flogging subscriptions to the Eurosport Player. This was the only platform where viewers could watch “every minute of every sport featuring every athlete”, which is good news if all you want to do is gawp at the gymnastics, but some scheduler thinks the canoeing is where it’s at.
On this score, Discovery chief executive David Zaslav has told analysts that 2021 could actually prove to be a "little better" for the company, because the new proximity of the summer games to the Beijing 2022 winter Olympics, to which it also has the rights, would allow it to market both games together.
While the absence of live sport is “a challenge”, he admitted, 90 per cent of Eurosport’s deals include either force majeure provisions or clauses that mean it doesn’t have to pay for content it doesn’t get.
Notwithstanding the news that Premier League football will resume on June 17th, the same principle has been played out in this instance, with Premier League clubs on track to (reluctantly) pay a rebate to the likes of Sky and BT Sport for not quite delivering the product that was promised.
Sports updates that weirdly retained their place on television and radio news bulletins throughout the period of there being no sport at all – not a single minute of any sport featuring any athlete – are now dedicated to the latest in rescheduling rumours, confirmations and open glee. It’s hard not to wonder how many sport-starved viewers yesterday tuned into the ITV4 schedule, where sandwiched between Kojak and something called Giant Lobster Hunters, there was live snooker from Milton Keynes.
The sports channels, however, are still largely archive central: Eurosport should currently be mid-way through its coverage of this year's French Open tennis, but instead of showing Rafael Nadal destroy every opponent en route to his 13th victory, it is having to roll out the highlights of the previous 12.
Without a vaccine, there is a possibility that sporting events that demand international travel from all corners of the globe won’t go ahead and that Tokyo 2020 will become the games that never were. That would be a huge shame, and not just for Japan, the IOC, Discovery and the athletes. Frankly, even in non-Covid times, there isn’t anything like enough pole-vaulting on television.