Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix could quickly disrupt the live sport TV market

Don’t rule out massive moves from these media giants into the sport TV market in the coming months and years... there's everything to play for, says Ben Dowell

Tottenham Hotspur's English striker Harry Kane (2nd R) celebrates with Tottenham Hotspur's Ivorian defender Serge Aurier (R) after scoring the opening goal of English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium in London, on October 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / IKIMAGES / Ian KINGTON / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  /         (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images, BA)

This week it was confirmed that the US Open Tennis Championship will air exclusively on Amazon in the UK for the next five years.

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The streaming service acquired the rights to the Grand Slam tournament the first of which it will air from 27th August to 9th September this year. The deal includes live coverage and on demand match highlights, plus other content to Amazon Prime Video members at no additional cost on top of their existing subscriptions.

It is a significant story that points the way to a seismic shift in the way TV sport – and TV in general –  will continue to change in the coming years.

Because, like it or not, the new TV players are coming for sport.  As well as Amazon, Netflix is thought to be sizing up interest, Facebook has already made moves to get a foothold in the live sports market and Apple looks to be readying itself for a push.

Sky, BT Sport, especially, but also the BBC, ITV and other broadcasters take note. The game looks about to change dramatically.

First the tennis news. Amazon has been jockeying for NFL rights in the US for a number of months now. Sport is a huge draw for audiences and Amazon realizes this. It may be the biggest grocer’s shop in the world, but as Kate Bulkley, a media writer specialising in this field, tells RadioTimes.com, that is exactly why it sees the appeal. It’s acquisition of tennis seems entirely understandable.

“In the case of Amazon it’s about attracting people into what is essentially an online shopping mall and getting them to buy,” she says. “The Amazon ‘subscription’ is the Amazon Prime membership which gives free shipping and also access to the Prime Video catalogue. Amazon now has 100 million Prime subscriptions and [CEO] Jeff Bezos has said that Amazon Prime Video drives Prime membership, both adoption and retention. In its recent results Amazon said that 2017 was its biggest year ever for Amazon Prime subscription sign-ups. This deal to buy the tennis is adding another attraction to become an Amazon subscriber and so, the theory goes buy more stuff from the Amazon shop. Expect more of these kind of deals as the big tech platforms work to grow their businesses.”

But which platforms? And how will they do it?

Netflix is a very different business of course. It is a content provider. And Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has consistently ruled out a move into sport.

“Sports is really good in the moment,” he told an industry conference last summer. “So you want to watch the game, but the afterlife of a given show is quite small. It’s hard to transform sports with the internet. I mean, you can carry it over the internet, but what does that do for you? So think of it as the internet doesn’t yet add much value to the sports experience.”

Netflix’s public line continues. But many commentators think they’re unlikely to have completely written sport off. Because whatever Netflix has said in the past, sport remains a huge part of the TV business – and as Netflix becomes a more and more major player in global television, it is likely to keep reviewing opportunities as they evolve.

Jane Featherstone, the founder of Sister Pictures and former chief executive of Kudos and co-chairman of Shine UK joked at a recent Broadcasting Press Guild lunch about the difference between what Netflix say in public and in private and what any media expert worth their salt expects to happen.

“You ask Netflix ‘is sport the next big thing for them?’ and they all say ‘no’ and I ask them to their faces and they all go ‘no no no’.  But they are all planning some master plan, surely?”

She is of course slightly joking, but it seems inconceivable that a global business like Netflix whose business is content will ignore live sport forever – one of the biggest and most potentially curative markets of all.

There seems to be a more obvious and public intent over at Facebook. Netflix did not bid for the 2019/20 Premier League football rights packages – but Facebook certainly showed an interest, dipping a toe in the process.

It is understood that Facebook got beyond the first round of bidding in the process that saw current premier league broadcasting giants Sky and BT Sport retain their hold on live televised Premier League football in the UK from 2019-22, having paid a total of £4.464bn to the clubs for the rights to the five main packages of matches.

But I wouldn’t count on Facebook not trying again when bidding begins for matches after 2022. It is also looking at live cricket – having last year failed to win the exclusive rights to stream five cricket games from The Indian Premier League (Facebook reportedly offered up about $610 million and lost out to 21st Century Fox’s Star India).

But as one source at the company told RadioTimes.com: “This is the best way of learning. You try and next time you know the game. If you’re an advertising supported business like Facebook – you have got to get into sport.”

In January, Facebook hired Peter Hutton, the Eurosport chief to help it broker worldwide deals for live-streaming sports. So expect more moves, more money and more seriousness behind future Facebook bids for big sporting events.

As for Apple, it clearly has big ambitions in the content game. It has hired former Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt, a formidable TV executive with exceptional brains, skills and tenacity to head up its European video operation.

As Featherstone puts it: “Apple has potentially 1.4 billion subscribers because everyone who has an apple device now has the TV device on their phones. It’s a game changer beyond anything anyone can even conceive. They are going to be a serious player – massive.”

So it’s not inconceivable that Apple will flex its muscles in the sports rights game very soon.

Whether this manoeuvringgrowth and investment can continue exponentially is a moot point. Will the market reach saturation point? Will all the new players succeed – and which ‘traditional’ broadcasters might be elbowed aside in the sporting arena? There are, of course, only so many hours in the day and only so many eyeballs capable of watching all this sports content we’re getting. Surely?

As Featherstone puts it: “I think it will consolidate. I am guessing. But we won’t all want to pay £8 a month for different services, will we? At the moment, I can see us getting to that place in 18 months’ time where we are all doing that and eventually there will be some consolidation. But I don’t know.”

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Well the game is afoot. And whoever does know the answer will probably make a lot of money very quickly.