Sports Rights Holders Are Finally Balancing The Books

It took a while, but the sports industry (what a horrible oxymoron that is) seems to have woken up to the value of its rights.

Well over a decade ago, I remember that we bid for an online system for the World Rally Championship. When I grew up, this was a hugely popular sport that would attract a quarter of the population of Wales onto the streets and into the forests on cold, dark November evenings. Rallying was bigger than Formula 1 back then by some distance. But they never got the TV right. They looked for a quick buck and handed their TV rights to a company that paid them, not to an organization like ours that was going to charge them. Big mistake. Who watches rallying now ? The sport is a sideline and the live events attract a tiny fraction of their previous audiences.

Many sports became too greedy. Boxing is still getting by, but no free to air broadcaster want to transmit two guys battering each other into hospital beds, so that's a special case.

But cricket. Oh, cricket. In an age where there are as many channels and as many feeds as you can ever wish, finding a single day's play of a county game is impossible. Even the TV friendly T20 format has struggled in the UK thanks to being confined to pay TV.

Likewise, the likes of the BBC and S4C can no longer compete for top level rugby, so the sport became present only in the 4m or so homes that can afford Sky Sports on its own service or on Virgin or Now TV.

Obviously a number more viewers go down to the dwindling number of pubs willing to pay the exorbitant fees charged by Sky to watch matches, if they can navigate around the football viewing in the local boozer, of course.

Then something dramatic happened. People in the UK and US stopped buying sports packages.

Of course, many of these streams are available from pirate sources, which the broadcasters have been very slow in dealing with. But the trend is clear. People are no longer willing to pay £40 for sports coverage when Netflix and Amazon provide phenomenal entertainment for £7.99 a month. The demands of Premiership agents and their over-preened 'stars' is in danger of destroying the model.

And the sports federations also realised that no one was turning up to watch their sports, or playing them, since they had sold their souls to appeal to an ever diminishing pool of people willing to pay through the nose for their rights.

So, all of a sudden, sanity seems to be breaking out in the sports rights market, with both cricket and rugby in the UK being made available live on free to air channels, albeit in sample sized, 'get them hooked' packages. Sky Sports, meanwhile, has split its rights more logically along channel bases: this means they can see who is willing to pay for what sports, rather than annoyingly obfuscating their services over several channels and red buttons.

So, from a rights holder perspective, we seem to be seeing some sanity and logic returning to the broadcasting of sports.

To paraphrase a former famous neighbour of mine, “An agent is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Thankfully, sports federations seem to have realised that the value of sports coverage extends beyond lucrative but restrictive packages.

But he next pratfall are all the 'new broadcasters' waiting in the wings, promising the earth for nothing. Beware the geeks bearing gifts, sports rights people...