In an era when advances in media are being driven by technologies such as AI, 5G, AR and VR, the name of the European Broadcasting Union, the coalition of public-service broadcasters, is not one that conjures up images of cutting-edge innovation and futuristic development.
Moreover, to the layman, the Eurovision brand that is attached to many of the Geneva-based organisation’s subsidiaries and services is synonymous with the annual song contest that is celebrated and derided in equal measure across the continent.
However, Stefan Kürten, the executive director of Eurovision Sport, claims that the dedicated sports arm is now a prime example of the technical innovation, flexibility and collaboration that the EBU wants to project, and, as he prepares to step down in June, after nearly two decades at the organisation, is confident that it will be a progressive and competitive entity in the years ahead.
Kürten tells Sportcal Insight: “Reputation is one thing, but when you look at how we operate and what we operate, I think we are extremely innovative, and have dared to go in directions we hadn’t gone before.”
Eurovision Sport, which took on its present name in a rebranding at the start of last year, has more than 35 contracts with over 30 federations, and offers a platform for a wide variety of Olympic sports throughout Europe, and indeed the world.
Leading properties showcased on a free-to-air basis by EBU members include soccer’s Fifa World Cup and the Uefa European Women’s Championships, World and European Championships in athletics, swimming and cycling, the Tour de France and Vuelta a España road cycling events, European gymnastics championships, World Cup skiing events from Austria and Switzerland and International Biathlon Union championships.
Rights deals for many of these events were extended in recent months, prior to the current shutdown of sport prompted by the global coronavirus pandemic, and Eurovision Sport has since been working with its partners to provide alternative content to broadcasters in the absence of live events.
Asked why federations and events organisers have remained loyal to the EBU, Kürten says: “Well, looking at the crisis at the moment I think we are a financially solid partner… Over all the years, we didn’t once fail to respect a contract. And, on top of that, I think the direct relationship between us and the broadcasters, not as an agent but representing them, is one of our biggest advantages.
“It means we understand - through and with the broadcasters - sport very well and we don’t see it as a pure commercial product. We have dedicated teams that have worked for many years on various sports and our members are the ones who follow from the national championships through the European Championships to the World Championships.
“Therefore, there is a storyline on sports that can be told and this is a very important asset for the federations. The winter sports story is told nearly 100 per cent in the camp of public-service broadcasters. The same goes for lots of summer sports, and this is another big advantage for the EBU as a partner.”
Kürten was sports rights controller at ZDF, the German public-service broadcaster, before joining the EBU in 2001 and has seen the organisation evolve, initially as director of Eurovision Operations and sports rights, director of sports and business from 2010 to 2017, and executive director of the sports arm since then.
He believes that the biggest changes over the period have been in how the EBU has adapted to new advances in the media coverage of sport and been willing to deal with other broadcasters and agencies on the distribution of content in various markets.
Eurovision Sport promotes itself as a ‘one-stop-shop’, working closely with Eurovision Services, the EBU’s business arm formerly known as Eurovision Media Services (EMS), to provide a variety of solutions in areas including production, rights distribution on TV, radio and online, event organisation and archive management.
“If you look at the two decades, the fact that we are a very present player in the market shows that we have developed because the market is developing quickly and the environment is changing dramatically,” says Kürten.
“I think one of the big achievements of this organisation is that we have managed to adapt throughout the years and reacted to the various challenges, ranging from how we act with the members to certain services on rights acquisition where we are buying and selling to non-members.
“We have a very flexible system that has been developed to adapt to the market requirements, and our technical and digital solutions on the various platforms.”
He adds: “We were probably living in a world where we had a 100 per cent members only, and that means first screen, approach 20 years ago. Today we are really exploiting content in a completely different way, in the sense of having the various platforms but also going into partnerships.”
The whole idea of how content is exploited, and how we consume it on the member side, and also what we give to the market, has completely changed
These partners now include Eurosport, the pan-European sports broadcaster, as a guarantor of the EBU’s eight-year deal with the UCI, which runs to 2025, IMG, the leading sports marketing agency, for the distribution of rights outside Europe to UCI cycling and FEI equestrian events, and ESPN, the international sports broadcaster, for the distribution of rights to major events of World Athletics and FINA, the international aquatics federation.
Kürten says: “The whole idea of how content is exploited, and how we consume it on the member side, and also what we give to the market, has completely changed. It helped me personally that I had for many years the responsibility for [what is now] Eurovision Services where I was able to get a deep understanding of distribution solutions and also the production side.
“The services were pushed into not only taking the signal and distributing it but also producing the signal. That bundle of services and the completely new sub-licensing and partnership models are big points of success.”
He says of the external partnerships: “It was a way of finding new solutions where we clearly defined what were the key necessities on our side and could we co-operate with third parties with a commercial approach, and it worked out well, I think on both sides. That goes for ESPN, IMG and Discovery-Eurosport, and shows again that we are not living with rigid models but with flexible models according to the product and the content that we have.”
Eurovision Sport also claims to have moved beyond its perceived conservative grounding in playing a major role in the development of the multisports European Championships, which bring together continental events in various disciplines, and formats such as last year’s The Match, an athletics contest between teams representing Europe and USA and held in Minsk in Belarus.
Kürten adds: “When you look at the biathlon co-operation, and see how modern and innovative are the ways that we present the sport, the understanding of us as a conservative partner is conservatism in the best sense in saying, ‘yes, we know what we have but we can build upon this in order to make it attractive for a wide audience’.
“I believe that the innovations we are undertaking, including the multi-platform approaches on our members’ side, and the partnerships, reaching out to Snapchat with the co-operations they are having, is showing how much we are willing to be innovative and how much we are getting it done.
“On top of that, the advantage we have is that we can directly talk to the broadcasters and we can carve out certain rights in a more direct way than others could do. And this allows us to share rights because the pure exclusivity, in the sense of having it all, and eating it all, is no longer the future.”
The EBU’s role as a partner of various continental federations was key to its involvement in the inaugural edition of the aforementioned European Championships, which were held in Glasgow (swimming, cycling, rowing, triathlon, gymnastics and golf) and Berlin (athletics only) in 2018, and this will continue for the second event, in Munich, in 2022.
“One of the important points is the question of why is it important to have this kind of concept?,” says Kürten. “Because we were clearly driving this from the beginning, and very much supporting ECM [organiser European Championships Management].
“We were driven by seeing that the world of sport is going gradually into non-European areas, and we had the feeling that there was a risk that Europe might become less relevant on the agenda or even on the map of the world of sport although most of the financial means, not for the Olympics, but for the Olympic sports, comes from Europe.”
He points out that with Asia hosting three successive Winter Olympics and Olympics - PyeongChang 2018, Tokyo 2020 (now in 2021) and Beijing 2022 - the European Championships had been an opportunity to reassert the importance of the continent’s sport without having to launch a totally new event.
The inaugural combined championships were considered a success, with the EBU claiming a television audience of more than 1.4 billion on free-to-air channels via member broadcasters and partners in 44 territories across Europe and around the world.
“And this is why we decided to go with the European Championships concept and not with the European Games [which launched in 2015]. We didn’t want another event, we wanted something which was existing events in a completely new way, in an innovative way, and, looking at the results, I think we were completely astonished to see how successful this project was. We met and did better than all expectations.”
He adds: “The audience, be it in the stadium, or in front of the television, really accepted this new model and we had a very good result. But, again, it showed how important the co-operation between the broadcasters, the EBU and the federations is.”
Everybody was celebrating the success of the Women's World Cup, but it was the EBU and the public-service broadcasters who started the co-operation and focused on it years and years ago
Kürten also cites the influence the organisation has had on the development of sports such as women’s soccer, with many EBU members enjoying record audiences for matches at the 2019 Women’s World Cup held in France.
He says: “Everybody was celebrating the success of the Women’s World Cup. But it was the EBU and the public-service broadcasters who started the co-operation and focused on it years and years ago. I recall when I signed the first contract on this, as we saw very early that the World Cup would develop, and are happy and proud partners with Fifa.”
Given its ongoing strong relationships with many of the sports that feature at the Olympics, the games themselves are a notable absentee from the EBU portfolio.
Indeed, the EBU has not had rights to an Olympics since the London 2012 summer games, with French media giant Lagardère (via subsidiary agency Sportfive) having held the rights in 40 countries (excluding major markets) to Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, before Discovery landed the rights in 50 territories (excluding Russia) to the following four games.
Kürten is hopeful that the EBU will return to the fray in future cycles, pointing to the fact that, given ‘listed events’ legislation and International Olympic Committee demands on minimum levels of free-to-air coverage on free-to-air television (200 hours for the Olympics and 100 hours for the Winter Olympics), the games ultimately end up being shown by its members anyway.
In the current cycle, Discovery, which is paying €1.3 billion ($1.4 billion) for the European rights to the Olympics to Paris 2024, has been negotiating sub-licensing deals with free-to-air broadcasters on a territory-by-territory basis, while retaining significant content for its Eurosport pay-TV outlets and other platforms in the respective countries.
Of course, the coverage plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are now on hold after the games were delayed until next year because of the pandemic.
Asked what the experience had been like for free-to-air broadcasters, Kürten says: “It’s a different process where I think all players, including our members, have had to live with the fact that at the end there is a partner [Eurosport] who co-uses the rights but, from a programming perspective, as a minor partner while the traditional broadcasters are the key contributors and key exploiters of the rights.
“It has to be seen whether this is the right model now for the summer Olympics because so far there is only the experience of the  Winter Olympics. In this respect I think it’s still an open question.”
In recent cycles, the EBU has been unable to compete financially for Olympics rights and also been deterred, to some extent, by the fact that some of the games on offer were not being held in Europe.
However, with Eurovision Sport now able to demonstrate greater flexibility in the handling of rights, Kürten believes it is better placed to offer return on investment to the IOC in the future.
He says: “Agencies come in and they have a business model which is different. But we have now changed our approach of how we use rights, and we are sharing them with other players, and that helped us to stay competitive, and to come back to the front line of interest for federations.
“Clearly on [the loss of] the Olympics, which was for me personally a very difficult decision, I was disappointed that we couldn’t agree on the same criteria when the IOC decided to allocate to another party.
“But I still believe that the value that we are giving to not only the Olympics, but also during the Olympiad, during the four years, is outstanding, and to have this in the hands of not only the public-service broadcasters, but also of the EBU, is something which we consider as a group to be of high value. We hope that we can convince the IOC next time to look at us again and to see whether we can agree on the same criteria.”
On the prospects of success here, Kürten says: “I can only recommend looking at the one who is taking the product at the end, and who is using it [the free-to-air broadcasters]. I think we are the natural partner for the IOC on this, but we have to adapt and to change and to see how a programme like the Olympics could and should be exploited. I believe we are well-positioned to be a solid and good partner for such an important product.”
I think the EBU and the free-to-air broadcasters were, are and will be even stronger as the backbone of the Olympic sports
There is also the wider question of whether the pandemic will have a lasting negative impact on the value of premium sports rights and/or dissuade major media companies and agencies from entering the market, thus making the EBU a more viable partner.
Kürten says: “I think the EBU and the free-to-air broadcasters were, are and will be probably even stronger as the backbone of Olympic sports, and this is not because of the crisis, but the crisis is there, and the crisis will show it, and how important it is to have a direct relationship with the broadcasters as those who exploit the rights.
“The role of the EBU will be stronger. There is no middleman and no middle risk. We see that there are always discussions about financial developments and certain global players sometimes look in other directions than sport.”
On the prospects for Eurovision Sport in what is likely to be a markedly changed economic climate, he adds: “We don’t know what the outcome of the financial crisis will be. We have seen a couple of players going out of business on the agency side, and this was when there was not such a crisis.
“And I’m talking here about when the Kirch Group went out of business [in 2002] and when you look at MP & Silva [in 2018] and when you look at recent developments when there were at least question marks about the financial wellbeing of certain organisations.
“I think the solidity of us in co-operation and the understanding that we are ready to share and to co-operate with others is the right model in the future as it was in the past. But we have to continue to adapt our modus operandi and be open to the interests of the federations and the interests of the markets. That will be a permanent dialogue between the various stakeholders and what we are always promoting.”
Asked to reflect on what he regarded as being the biggest achievements in the development of the EBU’s sports arm during his time with the organisation, Kürten says: “The ability to look far ahead and to understand future needs, and to provide and convert that into specific services and solutions. And what I mean by that is when we saw certain needs in the field of production, I said, ‘let’s do this’, and when I looked at winter sports, and how we had to improve, I said, ‘let’s do this.’
“We had a very clear long-term vision about where we wanted to go, how to get there and what we wanted to achieve. And finally to react, like how we developed the European Championships. By putting all the experience together we know what is happening in all European markets and I understand what is happening on the technical side extremely well, from the experience at Eurovision Sports.
“So it’s this kind of understanding about what the needs of the sports are, and what the technical solutions will be, in order to remain successful. This is I think the biggest achievement, and which will allow us to float nicely in the future.”
So why is he leaving now?
Kürten replies: “I thought it’s the right moment. If you still want, as I do, to do something else, it’s now the moment to try that.
“And secondly I knew we had quite a number of important contracts to negotiate and to sign over the last couple of months. So I had a clear plan what I wanted to do over this last year, and these were contracts with a very high volume, which is a couple of hundred million [euros] in which we’ve managed to prolong with the Tour de France, the Austrian ski federation and biathlon.”
Kürten adds that, with these deals sewn up, his successor Glen Killane, who joined Eurovision Sport, as deputy director, in August 2018, has the security and time “to develop his new ideas and doesn’t have to rush into main negotiations, and can agree all the details with the team to define the strategy for the years to come.”
Killane brings relevant experience and insight having previously been managing director of Eir TV and Eir Sport, the Irish pay-television operation, and prior to that managing director of the country's public-service broadcaster RTE Television from 2010 to 2016, while also serving as chair of the EBU Television Committee.
Kürten, for his part, intends to stay in sports and media, saying: “I will clearly assess the market until the end of year and I can for sure say that I will remain in the industry, and I hope and think that this wide set of skills will be quite helpful for the federations and the whole media industry.”