Sport is still tied to television broadcasting in Ireland and the UK with online streaming companies avoiding the market due to the monopolies held by pay-TV operators.
While services like Netflix and Amazon Prime allow customers to watch countless programmes and films without even owning a television, the broadcasting of sport is still very much tied to television operators and, in particular, those which must be paid for.
Sky is estimated by Nielsen Television Audience Measurement to have about 700,000 customers in Ireland and those figures are expected to grow over the summer after Sky Sports recently announced they have become the exclusive distributor of BT Sport and Premier Sports in Ireland.
That new deal means Sky Sports customers will now be able to watch all 233 televised Premier League games through one subscription. It is still unclear what the deal means for Eir Sport and Virgin customers who previously received BT Sport and Premier Sports content through their subscriptions. Spokespersons for both Sky and Eir told The Irish Times negotiations are still ongoing between the two providers with a view to a deal where Eir and Virgin subscribers would still receive BT Sport and Premier Sports.
While Sky are yet to release details of how their packages will be priced, it will now be possible to sign up to just one subscription to watch every televised Premier League match, every Champions League match, every Europa League match, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, the Heineken Champions Cup, Pro14, Premiership rugby, a number of GAA fixtures, racing, all PGA Tour and European Tour golf – including all four Majors – and plenty more across all sports. Meanwhile, all of Ireland’s competitive international football fixtures and Six Nations rugby remain on terrestrial television.
With essentially all of mainstream sport tied up to traditional television operators, streaming services have had a tough time getting into the market. In August of last year Eleven Sports – self-styled as the “Netflix of sport” – launched in the UK and Ireland with the exclusive rights for Serie A and La Liga.
Four months later there were reports the company may face closure in the UK and Ireland due to a lack of customers signing up. Since then it has ceded some of its La Liga rights to Premier Sports and ITV, lost the rights to Serie A, the Eredivise, and the Chinese Super League to Premier Sports and also lost a deal made with the UFC which was due to begin in January of this year.
In April the company launched a new pricing model where customers can make a one-off payment of €3.49 to watch any single La Liga match through the app Onefootball which has partnered with the streaming service.
But how can it be customers are happy to pay so much more for their sport?
Rob Hartnett, chief executive of Sport for Business, believes it’s a combination of factors, the most important of which is the quality. Consumers in general are happy to pay extra for the sort of quality that mainstream broadcasters provide, even if they don’t realise the level of that quality until they tune into a less-resourced streaming service.
“If you look at golf, for example, Sky have got all four Majors exclusively within the UK and Ireland this year,” Hartnett says. “Last year we had the US PGA on Eleven Sports and the level of service and the quality, it just wasn’t there. And people say ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s on a small screen it’s not going to be good anyway.’ But you don’t realise how good Sky or RTÉ’s coverage is until you see somebody else trying to do it without quite the same resources or quite the same understanding of the market here in western Europe. That’s what the big broadcasters have the capacity to do – to make it simple to watch and we’re suckers for that. We definitely will pay a premium in order to make it easier.
“All of the user experience testing that people will do for anything online is all about reducing the barriers to entry. Technology drives all of this but if technology gets in the way we tend to just give up. Three or four years ago people might have had this great illegal stream where you could watch matches for free. But you’d watch it for five minutes and then it would go into buffering and then you’d lose 30 seconds and then it would come back again and the quality on most illegal streams is just dreadful.
“So people’s attention and willingness to suffer second best is just minimal now and they’ll move on quickly. So if you’ve got to hit three buttons as opposed to two buttons in order to watch Ronaldo playing for Juventus the chances are you’re going to lose a third of the people by the time you’ve gone past the second button anyway.”
In the US, streaming service DAZN made waves last year when they announced an eight-year $1 billion (€894 million) deal with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing, securing it the exclusive US rights to, among others, all of Anthony Joshua’s and Katie Taylor’s fights as both are Matchroom boxers. In the UK and Ireland those fights will still be shown on Sky Sports or Sky Sports Box Office.
DAZN already operates in eight other countries outside the US where it holds rights for everything from Champions League and Premier League to the Six Nations and Champions Cup and operates on a far cheaper model to traditional pay-TV. In the US a customer can get access to all of DAZN’s content for $12 a month, significantly cheaper than pay-TV deals which, if you want to watch everything, can add up to just short of €150 a month in Ireland.
By 2020 the DAZN service will be available in 20 countries but, according to a report in the Guardian, it has no plans to launch in the UK and Ireland because they believe the market is already too competitive.
“Europe and the US are materially different in this sense,” Hartnett says. “The Americans very quickly and from a sporting organisation point of view realised that the cord-cutting generation was going to have an impact. First of all Major League Baseball, followed by NFL, followed by NBA have made a real push towards producing their content themselves or in partnership with a broadcaster. So now it’s got to the point where you can just tune into the last quarter of the Celtics against the Lakers in the NBA and you’ll pay effectively a micro payment for these bite size chunks.”
The most recent survey conducted by communications regulator Comreg estimated there were just under 720,000 households in Ireland with access to one of the three online streaming services offered here – Netflix, Sky’s Now TV and Amazon Prime. That figure makes up 45.6 per cent of the 1.58 million television households in Ireland. According to a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report released about the same time an estimated 66 per cent – or 1.04 million – of those 1.58 million households pay a monthly subscription for TV.
The figures show the gap between streaming and traditional TV packages is closing and indeed, in the UK last year, the total number of subscribers to the same three streaming services hit 15.4 million while the number of pay-TV subscribers was 15.1 million.
As the figures show, the popularity of streaming is growing quickly and sport will undoubtedly get swept along but perhaps not in the same forms as the streaming of documentaries, series and films. Two years ago Sky launched their Now TV streaming platform, which allows customers to purchase day passes, weekend passes and other special offers to watch specific events.
Hartnett believes it is avenues such as this which will grow the streaming of sport in the UK and Ireland as opposed to new, streaming-only companies coming in, as has happened in the US where the broadcast rights for sport are much more fractured.
“Live sport is still probably one of the last ‘appointment to view’ things on television,” Hartnett says. “You kind of need to be there at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon to watch Dublin playing against Kerry because we live in such a social media world that you’re never going to be able to go back to that at midnight when you get home. You know the result well before then.
“People will not go to a streaming service unless there’s good content on it. What Sky and other broadcasters have done is they’ve got the content and they’re the ones that are now more likely to move into the packaging of it. But 30 years ago, maybe 40 years ago, Sky would have only been a dream, people would have thought ‘who is ever going to pay to watch football on the television?’”
In years to come that question might well become “who still watches football on television?”
– This article is part of a new series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email email@example.com or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.