Uneven playing field in sports broadcasts
The Middle East’s football-hungry audience has had many hosts in past years to feed its cravings. From Showtime (now OSN) and ART, to Abu Dhabi and Dubai Sports channels and beIN Sports. But it’s at this point in the journey we hit a roadblock in the variety of choice that is on offer to a Middle East fan and instead, we regress.
Ever since beIN Sports emerged in the market, and coupled with its acquisition of ART Sports, the channel has adopted a bullish and aggressive strategy en route to sports media dominance.
With the benefit of being a cash-heavy business, beIN engaged the strategy knowing it would have to write cheques to rights holders far more expensive than previously, inflating the rights fee market in this region.
This quickly made the Middle East market a profitable region for these rights holders, often second only to the leagues’ own home markets. In turn, sports broadcasting in the Middle East became less feasible to sustain.
From a business point of view, beIN cannot be called a monopoly since much of its competition is still in business due to their state backing. But it seems to have created an augmented monopoly in which it is the only organisation able to compete at the market price for rights that it has set.
What the sports fan in the Middle East deserves is a healthy and competitive landscape of broadcasters to meet demand. This, after all, is an audience that invests considerably – whether from time and effort, with matches often taking place at unfavourable times in the day (the Champions League, for example, typically kicks off around midnight on a working day), or from spending money on merchandise and trips to the various cities to watch their beloved teams.
A healthier, more competitive market only elevates the standard of the broadcast service offered because networks are obliged to invest more care and effort into each property. This can be through marketing of the leagues as well as the overall matchday experience to maintain their competitive edge over rivals.
The best example of this is the sports broadcasting landscape in the US. Across the four major American sports (professional basketball, football, baseball and hockey) the rights are spread across nine different broadcasters, all existing in tight competition and in turn offering the American sport consumer many options.
Because of the increased acquisition costs for broadcast rights, beIN has explored alternative revenue options to recoup some of these. This usually comes in the form of TV advertising, an industry that is in decline, or subscription fee increases. This has made the market vulnerable to piracy, as audiences cut the cable cord if the cost exceeds their budget.
Whether or not you agree with beIN’s tactics, it is obvious that piracy isn’t the solution.
Piracy negatively affects the sports industry in several ways. The first is that it does not enforce to the consumer the value of intellectual property. BeIN has paid for the right to own the content of games for the duration of the contract. Supporting or turning a blind eye to piracy emphasises consumers’ disregard for the true owner of this content. One troubling consequence is fans refusing to accept a football club’s intellectual property and buying fake merchandise such as jerseys.
Piracy also normalises the idea that sports viewing can and should be free across any platform – even live. Local fans are increasingly averse to paying for tickets to matches, with many leagues reporting dwindling spectator numbers year-on-year.
Along with the failure of pay-per-view products to gain a foothold in the region, and a lack of digital options for watching on a smartphone or tablet, piracy is leading to market conditions that ultimately devalue sport as a significant sector. Until the broadcast industry works towards changing, then sport will be considered a secondary, if not tertiary, sector.
Since piracy is not the solution, the first step towards a solution would be an organic reversal of the augmented monopoly that beIN has created. Where one of the previously mentioned entities may not be able to compete with beIN’s power alone, there is strength in numbers.
A working partnership between some, with one potentially taking all the Saturday matches and another all the Sunday matches for example, or one entity taking the live matches and another taking the highlights, can lead to the sudden break in the stranglehold beIN sports has on sports broadcasting.
This, however, is a longterm strategy and should not be used to strip beIN of all its rights at once, since that would only lead to a monopoly in the other direction. But it should be a strategy formed to be able to compete and create a fair marketplace.
A multi-broadcaster approach is one that the international sports fan is used to, with the likes of ESPN, FOX, NBC Sports in the US and Sky, BT Sports and more recently Eleven Sports in the UK, all able to successfully co-exist globally. There shouldn’t be an issue in broadcasters co-existing in the Middle East, for the benefit of fans and the sports we love.
Fans are increasingly averse to paying for match tickets, with many leagues reporting lower attendances