Sometimes, the biggest changes are the ones going on under your very nose.
Last night (Tuesday) I stayed in with a couple of cold bottles to watch the first matches of this year’s Champions League. Having no particular first-night allegiance, I soon tired of Chelsea’s struggles and flicked over to Barcelona v AC Milan on Sky Sports HD4.
The match was a great improvement, but what was really striking was how brilliantly Sky is innovating in digital broadcasting. The Barcelona game was one of eight available on the same channel, via the red button. But having plumped for one didn’t mean missing out on any of the other action. Every time a goal was scored elsewhere, a newsflash appeared at the foot of the screen. By pressing the red button again, I could see an instant replay of the latest goal, before returning to my chosen game via the back button.
I apologise if this reads like an advertisement for Sky, but I was genuinely impressed by the coverage. It’s also undoubtedly a taste of things to come. What you want, when you want it, with nothing missing. And as the gloss pales on movies as a subscription driver, Sky’s sports coverage is vital to its future.
The current Premier League TV deal expires in 2013. Under its terms, UK broadcasters (including Sky) are prohibited from showing live matches that kick off at 3pm on a Saturday. This clause has been included in every TV deal since 1992, when the Premier League was formed. All of the matches are filmed for later packaging, and many are shown live outside the UK.
But, as with music, film, TV and publishing, the internet is changing the rules. A quick Google search for “live football stream” yields a plethora of sites offering free or paid for live coverage of Saturday matches. Although this is technically illegal, it is as hard to stamp out as file sharing.
It’s frustrating for Sky and the football clubs that third parties are making money out of their content. They will surely seek to address this. The clues to the future shape of live football are in the background on every post-match interview. Invariably, in among the sponsors’ names is the name of the club’s own TV site. Some of these, like the dedicated channels for Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, are predominantly old-fashioned TV broadcasts. Some, like Manchester City’s CityTV, or Everton TV, are only available online.
Come 2013, thanks to growing broadband speeds and widespread PC access, the internet rights will be as important as the traditional broadcasting rights, and the clubs are certain to demand more control. Individual teams may sell virtual season tickets, which will grant access to reliable high-quality live streams of a complete season’s games for fans unable to make the game. The Premier League’s objections to 3pm Saturday screenings (made on the grounds that it might harm attendances) will be swept away in the face of such exciting new revenue streams.
The most successful English football teams (pace Swansea City) are in the process of transforming themselves into brands, through everything from shirt sales to social media. It is inconceivable that wider internet coverage does not form part of that strategy.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Brian Lenz, Sky’s Director of Product Development, for the Wall Street Journal (http://on.wsj.com/qretPV). What he said was an interesting take on how the hunt for profit and innovation go hand in hand.
“We don’t really care where the customer accesses Sky content, whether it’s during transmission, online, through an XBox or through an iPad app. We just want them to access Sky content. It’s no accident that we were first into digital, the first to offer an integrated PVR, the first to launch HD, the first online download service, the first into mobile TV and 3D. Clearly there are lots of upfront costs and there’s a degree of risk. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to explain the notion of pausing live TV to a VHS owner.
“It is different for commercial TV. If your business is built around advertising and big linear audiences, having those audiences fragment is uncomfortable. HD is another example. For them [ITV] there was a lot of upfront cost, but they didn’t reach any more eyeballs. There were no new audiences or revenue streams.”
Based on the evidence of last night’s coverage, Sky’s technology is already in place. Whatever the 2013 negotiations throw up, Sky will be ready and waiting to pounce.