There is potential for ESPN to form partnerships with networks similar to those it already has in place with BT Sport in the UK and Kwesé Sports in Africa, but the international sports broadcasting giant is committed to ensuring the needs of local fans are met.
Although best known as a US bastion with nearly 40 years of experience offering coverage of sports such as American football, baseball and basketball, ESPN is highly active internationally, notably in Europe where it continues to distribute programming to the likes of BT Sport and provides a wide variety of digital content, in part through its OTT service ESPN Player.
In the past year, it has also made a high-profile return to Africa through a collaboration with Kwesé Sports, a burgeoning network available across the sub-Saharan region, which is offering 3,000 hours per year of ESPN programming.
The partnership has entailed the launch of an ESPN channel on the continent featuring sports and events like US college basketball, motor racing’s IndyCar Series and the ESPN-owned X Games.
It has also given Kwesé Sports access to dedicated SportsCenter updates, studio shows such as ESPN FC (soccer) and The Jump (NBA) and ESPN Films documentaries and resulted in the development of an African edition of the ESPN website and app featuring a multitude of clips provided by ESPN.
ESPN has also provided support on the production front, allowing Kwesé Sports to use its facilities at the recent Fifa Confederations Cup in Russia and collaborating on ‘game around the game’ content.
Asked if that partnership, and the more established one with BT Sport, could be a template for others, Charly Classen, vice-president and general manager of ESPN for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tells Sportcal Insight: “There are elements of them that we think can apply somewhere else, but probably not all of them. We can definitely see other partners who will want to work with us on a long-term basis if the values and commitment and ambitions are right on both sides.
“That doesn’t mean that in every market we will have a partnership. There are a lot of business areas we will do by ourselves as we’ve done in the past and will continue doing so.”
He adds: “Ultimately sports fans are local. You have to have a market-by-market approach. Even in sub-Saharan Africa your South African sports fan is very different from your Nigerian sports fan. Rugby is really important in some markets, much less so in others.”
Kwesé Sports, which offers a combination of free-to-air and pay channels, believes the ESPN tie-up has given it a boost as it has sought to establish itself in a market traditionally dominated by South African subscription broadcaster SuperSport.
Ultimately sports fans are local. You have to have a market-by-market approach
There are also connections in terms of personnel, with parent company Econet Media this year appointing Jeroen Oerlemans, formerly of ESPN, as chief executive of Kwesé Sports.
Joseph Hundah, the president and chief executive of Econet Media, says: “The partnership for us has been strategically not important, but crucial for a number of reasons. As a new media business in Africa, a partnership with ESPN was extremely good for our credibility with other international players and partners. The fact that ESPN had the confidence to work with us really held us in good stead as we started rolling out all our services.
“Over and above that the expertise that ESPN has brought to the table in terms of their international experience and sports coverage and production, and offering a helping hand in most of our initiatives, has been invaluable to us.”
He adds: “The team has found the collaboration on a technical level absolutely fabulous in terms of introducing us to the latest and greatest technology and best practice and that has been something that we’ve really benefited from.”
BT Sport launched in the UK in 2013 on the back of the acquisition of the ESPN’s UK television channels and the legacy lives on in the shape of a branded ESPN channel and 4,000 to 5,000 hours per year of ESPN programming across the network.
On the ESPN EMEA operation, Classen, who's been with the organisation for over a decade, says: “We’ve got a very varied business, a very sophisticated business and a business that’s very different depending on which market you’re looking at.
“In the UK, where we’re based, you’ll be very aware of our long-term partnership with BT Sport, which we renewed and are extremely happy with. And we do a lot of things outside of that, like digital.”
He adds: “The business is in better shape than ever. We’re growing double digits every year, and we’re really confident about what the future holds.”
ESPN’s digital operations, which include the ESPN FC portal and cricket website ESPN Cricinfo, reach about 130 million unique users per month worldwide.
While official metrics are lacking, Classen believes that kwese.espn.com is already the most popular sports news and information website in sub-Saharan Africa, while ESPN’s Middle East website is the leading English-language sports destination in the region.
Classen says there are three tenets to ESPN’s business in EMEA, namely providing quality content to sports fans, long-term partnerships such as that with BT Sport and media distribution.
On the latter front, he highlights last October’s partnership with the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella body of mostly public-service broadcasters, to distribute the rights to competitions organised by FINA, the international swimming federation.
Classen says: “It’s probably quite an unusual link-up and not one everyone expected, but we actually think we complement each other really well. The EBU has classic strength with free to air with their traditional members and we bring expertise in pay-TV and our assets.”
He claims the ESPN brand continues to resonate strongly, pointing to research it has conducted in the UK showing that 75 per cent of sports fans believe it is on the up.
Classen says: “What is even more promising is if you break it down by demographic, the younger people are, the more brand affinity they have for ESPN, especially in the UK, and we’ve seen that replicated in different areas.”
He concludes: “We’re quite a unique business in a sense in that we buy rights, we sell rights, we have our own event with the X Games and we have a large digital presence. We have a very strong brand.”