Now owned outright by Discovery, the pan-European sports channel that recently bagged the Olympics is looking to a turbocharged future. Owen Gibson reports
Over-the-top hyperbole is usually de rigueur when it comes to unveiling big TV sports-rights deals. But, this summer, when Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav declared his company’s €1.3bn, pan-European deal with the International Olympic Committee a “game changer”, it seemed more like an understatement.
The contract, which runs from 2018, caused many people’s jaws to drop – while others scratched their heads over its implications. It seemed like another blow to the BBC and its grip on the world’s greatest festival of sport.
Discovery’s move ended more than half a century in which European public service broadcasters showed the Olympics and fuelled its growth into a commercial and cultural behemoth.
Eurosport itself was launched in 1989 at the dawn of the satellite-TV revolution. Then, it was a joint venture between the European Broadcasting Union and the earliest iteration of Sky. The aim was to provide an outlet for rights the partners held but couldn’t utilise on their main channels.
Now, with major US investment turning it from a sleepy backwater into a major player, Eurosport is in the vanguard of a new era.
The pan-European, long-term nature of June’s IOC deal is, perhaps, the best signpost yet to where sports broadcasting is heading.
The pendulum certainly seems to be swinging towards complex, pan-regional deals between sports bodies and global players such as Fox, ESPN and the Qatari-owned BeIN Sports.
The deal was masterminded by Zaslav, who first acquired a 20% stake in Eurosport in 2012. This increased to 51% in 2014 and – around a month after the Olympics deal – Discovery bought out the remaining 49% from French broadcaster TF1.
This last move garnered surprisingly few column inches, but it is equally significant in highlighting Discovery’s ambitions for the sports channel.
Eurosport’s brand has endured for three decades. It broadcasts to more than 50 countries in 20 languages.
Yet, in quite a number of these territories, it remains stuck in the popular imagination as an esoteric home for a continental smorgasbord of winter sports, cycling, tennis and other, more specialised, fare.
That is not always the case. When the Tour de France explodes into colourful, controversial life every July, for example, or during the French Open, when the world’s best tennis players compete in Paris, it sits at the centre of the sporting world. But, in the main, it has remained a secondary player, rather than a big hitter.
Before, Eurosport in Paris dictated policy to each local country. Now, that needs to change: we need to provide a toolbox for local countries to build channels out of
The marriage of Discovery, the US giant that grew from a single cable science channel in 1985 into a global broadcasting network, and Eurosport, the Paris-based, quintessentially European, sports broadcaster, appears, at first glance, an unlikely one.
Reporting of the sports broadcasting world, as with many other business sectors (and, indeed, sports themselves), can be reductive.
It tends to be viewed through the prism of winning and losing high-profile rights packages when, in fact, the secret to success in a fast-changing media landscape is increasingly more complex and subtle.
When Discovery took its controlling stake in Eurosport, Zaslav eye-catchingly said that the companies would “look at opportunities to take bigger swings in certain markets”. They flirted with the 2014 UK rights auction for Premier League football – eventually a £5bn carve-up between Sky and BT. And they were also linked with the Serie A contract in Italy.
But Peter Hutton, Eurosport’s Chief Executive, cautions against the idea that the broadcaster intends to wade in for every available rights package.
Instead, says Hutton, Eurosport will continue to invest heavily in production – he cites the innovations during this summer’s Tour de France, such as on-board cameras – and in making channels more locally relevant.
“You’ve got to be sensible,” insists Hutton. “The most difficult decisions are to say no to things and to say, ‘Let’s concentrate on the things we do well and do [them] better’.
“The goal for every sports channel is that you should be needed in a pay-TV package and that people will miss you if you’re not there. You’ve got to make it part of people’s sporting lives.”
When the IOC deal was announced, it genuinely came from left field. The attraction for the IOC is the allure of a pan-European broadcaster with deep pockets and global scale.
What’s more, Eurosport can partner on the IOC’s still fuzzy vision for its own Olympics channel that can boost the profile of its sports between Games. But, on both sides, it remains a high-stakes gamble.
Zaslav has been keen to highlight Eurosport’s “ability to develop and follow the same sports and athletes all year, combined with access to the archives”, which offers a win-win for both Discovery and the IOC.
The latter is all too aware that Olympic sports tend to fade from view as soon as the flame dies at the closing ceremony.
From 2018, across most of Europe (Russia aside) and in the UK and France from 2022, Discovery will hold exclusive rights to the biggest sporting show on earth. In practice, it will sub-license the rights to the Games in many markets.
But Discovery’s patchwork of free-to-air channels (including in the UK and Germany), pay services and online offerings gives it myriad options both during the Olympics and between them.
It is an innovative, in some ways brave, move from both sides. Under the IOC’s rules as they stand, at least 200 hours of the summer Games and 100 hours of the winter Olympics must be shown on free-to-air TV.
Some countries, notably the UK, have listed-events legislation that requires these competitions to be shown in their entirety on free-to-air channels.
But, even in the UK, the options are extensive. Eurosport could do a deal with the BBC or Channel 4. Or it could utilise space on Freeview to launch its own free-to-air Olympic channels. Or it could subcontract the best of the action and market itself as the only place to see every last moment.
The entrance of an emboldened, Discovery-backed Eurosport into the market is yet another challenge to the BBC’s grip on the sports rights that it still holds.
The intense competition between pay-TV giants BT Sport and Sky has already squeezed the BBC’s options and, while it is hopeful of coming to a sub-licensing deal around the Games, it will no longer be able to market itself as the home of the five rings.
Recalling the political and popular goodwill it earned from its London 2012 coverage, the ramifications are wider than simply two weeks of sporting action.
This blow to the corporation’s status as the place where the nation gathers to view major events such as the Olympics comes in the midst of a wide-ranging debate about the BBC’s future scale, scope and funding.
It is not only with the Olympics deal that Discovery will look to take advantage of the patchwork of channels it owns across the continent.
Traditionally, as a way of keeping production costs down, Eurosport has broadcast the same video feed across different territories but with localised commentary. That model is changing swiftly. Under Discovery’s ownership, Eurosport plans a different emphasis for each territory.
“Before, Eurosport in Paris dictated policy to each local country. Now, that needs to change: we need to provide a toolbox for local countries to build channels out of,” says Hutton, who joined Eurosport in March from rights agency MP & Silva and previously worked at ESPN and Fox.
“Part of that is investing in production and part of it is a focus on national players. In the UK, that might mean focusing on Andy Murray in the French Open.”
It is also bearing fruit: UK audiences are up 24% since Discovery took a majority stake. Luck has also played a part. Eurosport has benefited in the UK from the fact that its two highest profile sports – cycling and tennis – are undergoing a spell of home-grown success.
Hutton also highlights the potential of the Eurosport Player, an online offering that currently has around 200,000 paying subscribers. The company intends to expand the service and its user base.
That might mean, for example, showing all the outside courts at the French Open while the main channel concentrates on the show courts. Or it might mean offering limitless options for enthusiasts to watch minority sports.
Ever since the beginning of the broadband age, the idea that smaller sports might be able to use the internet to aggregate a large audience has remained tantalisingly out of reach.
Hutton believes that this could change as technological advances and shifting viewing habits lead fans to gorge on the sports they are most passionate about, rather than being happy with a scheduled pick and mix.
“We saw research from the IOC that showed that the number of sports people are watching is decreasing, but we’re watching more of the things we care about,” he says. “You drill down to the things you care about most.”
By the time Eurosport beams the 2018 Winter Olympics from PyeongChang, the mutually dependent interests of the sports industry and the global media business are likely to have shifted again.
If Discovery’s bold opening gambit over the past 12 months is anything to go by, it is clearly determined that a turbocharged, emboldened Eurosport will be at the heart of them.