The Evolving Landscape of Digital Media Rights in Soccer

The question constantly asked to anyone with a relevant opinion on soccer in the United States is always “will this be the year soccer makes it”, or something along those lines.  Many ask with the hopes in hearing that the World Cup in Brazil showed that 2014 could be the fulcrum that tips the scales in favor of soccer in the states and of course, no one ever gives that desired perfect answer.

Many times the answer is that the interest is obviously there, it’s simply a matter of building on the foundation set by MLS and the US Mens National Team and growing general popularity of the sport. Despite being a response, that’s not really an answer and inevitably the conversation always comes back around to developing that “World Class Star”, soccer’s Tiger Woods or Lebron James which leads to whether MLS is a “selling” league and so on and so forth until it’s difficult to remember what the original point was.

With players in Bayern Munich’s, Borussia Dortmund’s, Real Madrid’s and FC Barcelona’s youth systems, realistically, that American star that everyone is hoping for is likely to come around eventually and contrary to popular opinion, it may not be necessary or likely that he plays domestically in the US. (Though a debate for another day, Argentina’s World Cup squad in Brazil only contained three players who played in Argentina, they had an average age of 31 years old and of those three only Fernando Gago held down regular minutes in the team.)

It’s possibly less important where that future USMNT star plays, and more important how much he gets paid.  Any club that will pay him will likely draw a large portion of overall revenue from TV & media rights deals due to the ever rising price point for entry into that distribution market.

This brings us back to the question at hand, how then do you tap the United States, one of the two fastest growing markets in term of interest in soccer? That is a question for broadcasters and the answer may be found in digital media rights going forward.

Current Landscape

The money involved with television deals for regional distribution rights are skyrocketing and simply unheard of, but another equally unique facet of these deals is the amount of access to content. Included in NBC’s coverage of the Premier League and MLS, they have made every single game available for viewing via NBC Sports Live Extra as long as you have a TV subscription to NBC Sports Network. ESPN did the exact same thing with their coverage of the World Cup with every game available via the Watch ESPN app.

Use of these avenues was huge, Comcast alone provided over 13 million live streams via Xfinity TV Go & the Watch ESPN app during the World Cup with USA vs. Belgium constituting 834,000 live streams on its own.

In 2012 an ESPN Sport Poll Annual Report had soccer as the second most popular sport for 12-24 year olds as well as a steady upward trend of avid fandom from 12-17 year olds, arguably one of the most difficult age groups to retain.

These are the demographics that are drivers of the “multi-screening” phenomenon currently occurring where consumers and viewers regularly have a second or third screen in addition to a television, be it a cell phone, tablet or laptop when watching games.  This type of consumer activity also drives massive online interaction through Twitter and Facebook which is currently being leveraged more and more by brands all over the world.

Despite this many broadcasters see multi-screening as a second-hand form of broadcast compared to television.  According to Julien Signes, CEO of Envivio, Comcast’s only vendor that handled live multi-screen streaming, the second-hand treatment is a mistake.

Areas of Contention

With expanded coverage, comes much more nuanced media rights deals.  Online piracy of games has been a major problem for years not only in soccer but with every sport, with stings happening regularly. One of the biggest issues with online piracy is that when one site gets shut down, another pops right back up.

This kind of intellectual property pursuit isn’t new, however with the ever expanding list of social media sites and apps comes a new media landscape that is much more difficult to define in black and white.

Daniel Geey at leading Sports Law website provides the perfect example of this negative pitfall potential with legitimate social media like video sharing service vine.  Go on to reddit’s dedicated soccer page r/soccer on any game day and guaranteed there will a gif, or a vine of a play, comical event or a goal.  Daniel Geey highlights exactly why and how this is another form of intellectual property infringement and it displays a trend in digital media rights that is more defensive than offensive for content creators.

While there is increasing sophistication in media rights deals, such sophistication like highlight rights seem to be reactionary rather than a recognition of potential expansion of a business model.

Moving Forward

The digital media rights breakdown in media deals will represent larger portions of the business and monetization model going forward especially with younger generations continuing to grow up with smart phones, tablets and laptops.

As it stands, legitimate multi-screening requires cable subscriptions to those content creators like ESPN and NBC sports.  This will most likely need to change going forward with a growing number of younger consumers choosing not to subscribe to standard delivery television and rather go with more cost-effective and popular options like Hulu Plus and Netflix where you can stream over the internet on platforms like Playstation and Xbox.

This goes back to Julien Signes’ comment on multi-screen streaming being treated as a second-hand form of broadcast.  He highlighted that consumers want the same level picture quality online as they get on HD TV, unfortunately that’s rarely ever the case. If broadcasting companies are looking to continue innovation in content distribution though, making the move to start providing high standard online picture quality and treating digital media as a viable and legitimate delivery mechanism then it could prove incredibly lucrative to build a separate business model around it.

Digital media and the desire to have TV anywhere is looking more and more likely to be the way to bring the key target market in what is one of the fastest growing soccer markets on board. Fox will handle the World Cup until 2020, NBC’s Premier League deal is only for three years and BeIn Sports holds the US rights to almost every other league except for the Bundesliga. Innovation in digital media distribution could prove pivotal in the business of sports media and broadcasting and the landscape is constantly changing.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.