The announcement that Sky Television have lost the rights to the English Premier League (EPL) coverage for New Zealand, with the rights going to a company who will stream the material online, has been met with a little confusion. No one is quite certain what it means, what it means for business, what it means for viewers, what it means for the future of sports coverage in New Zealand. I make no claims to be an expert in this field, but I wanted to put together a couple of ideas about what we might see from this.
Usual disclaimer: I don’t have any knowledge of the inside workings of any of the companies discussed here. Also, while being interested in sports, I don’t really follow the EPL, so I am prepared to stand corrected on any of the finer details here.
An quick aside/primer for those not familiar with the NZ TV market: Sky Television is the main (pretty much sole) provider of pay television in the New Zealand market. There has recently been a low(er)-cost alternative released as a joint partnership between Sky and the state-owned network, TVNZ, but this has very little exclusive content, and although there is meant to be a sports channel joining that network, current the only sports available is pay-per-view. There is still some sport available on free-to-air networks in NZ, but a lot of that sport is delayed, and these days, Sky has managed to outbid TVNZ for the rights to pretty much all the major sports.
So, Sky will no longer have the rights to the EPL. For a fee which is less than your annual Sky bill, you can get a season pass to all the EPL content online, which includes live streaming of all 280 games as well as subsequent access to them on demand, or you can purchase a day pass as and when you wish. I can immediately see some benefits of this. For a start, as far as I’m aware, Sky never came even close to screening every game. So if you are a fan of a particular team, you now know you can watch their games every week, without being at the behest of the whims of a broadcaster. If you were a Man U fan, this probably wasn’t a problem, but I’m not sure how many of Portsmouth’s game were screening in a season. I would assume (but I certainly don’t know) that part of Sky’s deal would have been the rights to broadcast a certain number of games. I doubt that that was 280. If it had been, I would have thought they would have made them available via iSky, their online offering. As far as I am aware, they did not. So, if you’re a fan of a team, you get to see all their games. If you’re a really big fan of the EPL, you get to see all their games.
The other big positive being bandied about is that of competition. Those of us who take an interest in the media industries in New Zealand have frequently bemoaned the lack of competition in television provision – lack of competition is usually the reason attributed to higher pricing, poorer quality content offerings, longer broadcast windows, poorer technology offers and more. While the traditional broadcast framework may be too difficult to crack for a start-up, online niche audiences provide an opportunity for new companies to make a move, to be innovative. If Coliseum (the company with the EPL rights) get their technology right, provide a high quality feed, an easily navigable site, provide it on multiple platforms, and make it easy for viewers to replicate their existing experience (ie watch it on a TV screen) then I believe they have a real opportunity to shake up the market here, in a way in which everyone wins.
However, this is not all sunshine and roses. There are a number of points which give me cause for concern, and make me wonder if this might actually be going to make the situation worse for New Zealanders.
It is very unlikely that Sky is going to decide to lower their subscription costs because they’ll no longer be offering EPL. If they have any sense, they’ll freeze their prices for a little, because the outcry at an immediate price increase would be very damaging. But to lower their prices would set a dangerous precedent for them, one which I’m not sure they could sustain. So, a Sky subscription is going to be as expensive as it has ever been, and while it is not exorbitant, it is certainly not cheap! And the Coliseum offering for the EPL is not exorbitant either, I believe it comes out to less than $1 per game, if you choose to watch them all. However, the question is, how many people are actually going to dump their Sky subscription in order to purchase the Coliseum offering. And the answer is, probably very few. If you are enough of a football fan to want to shell out just for the EPL, then you probably want to watch other football too. The A-League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, even MLS. The UEFA Europa League, the Champions League. The offerings of these aren’t comprehensive on Sky, but that’s the only place that you’ll (legally*) see any of them.
*Of course, one of the effects of this may be just to push people to avenues that are… extra-legal. As in, outside our current legal frameworks. I’m not going to call them illegal, because while what the provider is doing is illegal (probably, depending on country of registration etc), whether technically watching the stream of it is illegal is a slightly greyer area, and whether there would or could ever be a prosecution for doing so is even murkier. Ongoing disclaimer: also not a lawyer.
So, probably the uptake of Coliseum is mostly going to be in addition to, rather than instead of, a Sky subscription. A larger spend, during what is still a period of economic difficulty. And given that the offering is purely of the EPL, a large percentage of this will be going directly off-shore. Now, there is certainly an argument to be make that watching sport is a luxury, that if you can’t afford it, just don’t watch it. But I feel that that is a little bit of a slippery slope – at what point do we start making that argument about access to art, about access to culture, about access to books. Watching sport is a choice, but if we continue to only view it in a capitalist model, I’m a little concerned about the possible extrapolations. Either way, we are moving watching this particular sporting competition a little more out of the reach of a lot of the population (admittedly, if we want to generalise, you probably couldn’t have chosen much more of a sport which targets ‘rich professionals’ without choosing the PGA).
I’m also going to be fascinated to see what the arrival of Coliseum does to the sports bar community. I haven’t looked deeply into Coliseum, but it is not entirely clear how their rules will apply to broadcast in a public space. Not that the timing of EPL games is always conducive to operating a bar, but I would imagine that there have been some games which have been being played live on big screens in bars. Is this something which will be possible in this new scenario. Will they need to pay a large amount in addition to what they pay Sky in order to play live games and replays to their patrons? Will fans be able to avoid having to pay the additional cost by seeing these games in public, or is that avenue being closed off too?
Coliseum is going to be an interesting test case. As much as Sky’s share price fell (5% if I recall correctly), it is unlikely that the loss of EPL content is going to see a great number of lost subscriptions, with the exception of some people who may do so in order to express displeasure at Sky not winning the bid. The EPL is a very niche market, with some very rabid fans, and you may well see it being a success, if they can provide the content well. Where things are going to be very interesting will arise if Coliseum, or another provider, decide to try to pick up some more sport. Are there enough golf fans in the country to justify a unique offering? Motorsport? Sailing? Rugby League? It’s probably a fair assumption that the holy trinity of Rugby, Cricket and Netball are safe on traditional television broadcast for a while yet, but I’m not convinced that the others aren’t fair game. And if this happens, what does it mean for sporting fans. With my current Sky subscription, I end up watching sport that I would never dream of directly shelling out money for (even though I am by paying my subscription fee). If we have to pay individually for each sport, or each sporting competition, how will that change the viewing models that we have available. Are we actually going to see a shrinking population of sports viewers in New Zealand? If we do, is that necessarily a bad thing?