Austrian Bundesliga and skiing only long-term goals for acquisitive Servus
Servus TV, the Austrian free-to-air television channel owned by energy drinks giant Red Bull, is interested in showing popular properties such as soccer’s Austrian Bundesliga and alpine skiing, but these are long-term aspirations, and it is not looking to rebrand as an exclusive sports channel.
Servus has recently been building up its sports offering, acquiring rights to soccer’s Uefa Champions League and Europa League and Formula 1 from 2021, while also making a name for itself in tennis.
This has prompted talk that the broadcaster could challenge for rights to other top competitions, including the Austrian Bundesliga, currently the preserve of pay-television operator Sky in a deal running to 2022.
David Morgenbesser, the head of sports rights and content distribution at Servus, admits the league is an attractive prospect, but that circumstances would have to change before it is a true contender.
In an interview with Der Standard newspaper, he said: “The Bundesliga is with Sky in the long term, and it depends on what the Bundesliga and Sky then decide.
“Basically, the Austrian Bundesliga is of course an exciting right, and something you have to watch. But essentially it is a classic pay-TV product because all the games can be shown live and in parallel. We are unable to do this, but if it makes sense to us in any way, we will look at it carefully.”
Sky’s four-year deal for the league is worth €32 million ($37.25 million) per season and it has been sub-licensing rights to some games to public-service broadcaster ORF.
Asked if Servus could seek a similar arrangement, Morgenbesser, who joined from Sky last November, said: “We don’t know how the Bundesliga will market itself, whether it will put together its own package for free or, as recently, only general rights will be awarded. At the moment this falls into the realm of speculation.”
However, he denied that there would be any conflict of interest given that Red Bull Salzburg are one of the leading clubs in the Austrian top flight, saying: “Servus TV has been resolved by Red Bull Salzburg, these are two different companies. Salzburg also had to lead this discussion with Uefa – also with [Red Bull] Leipzig – otherwise they would not be allowed to play internationally.
“Red Bull Salzburg is completely separate from the company structure, which is why this discussion does not need to take place.”
While Sky will show every match from the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League in the 2021-24 cycle, Servus will co-broadcast 18 Champions League games per season, plus one match a week from the other two competitions.
Asked if it was on the lookout for other top soccer, including matches of the Austrian national team traditionally shown on ORF, Morgenbesser said: “That depends on what is marketed. We saw in Germany that [Deutsche Telekom’s] Magenta bought the  European Championships in a complete surprise. You have to wait and see what happens.
“We have to see again whether the national team fits into the schedule, whether we have broadcast slots at those times and whether it is financially acceptable. We don’t overpay for rights.”
Servus is to share free-to-air live coverage of Formula 1 with ORF in a three-year deal starting in 2021, with the breakdown of races to be decided before each season, while Sky continues to show every round.
This will complement Servus’ continued coverage of motorcycling’s MotoGP World Championship.
Tennis has also become a regular staple of the broadcaster’s sports coverage, and it is the new free-to-air home of the Erste Bank Open, a men’s ATP Tour event, held in Vienna in a deal that takes effect for next month's tournament at the Wiener Stadthalle.
Servus will hope to capitalise on the success of Dominic Thiem, having this month pulled in an average of 400,000 viewers, late at night, for the Austrian player’s maiden grand slam triumph in the US Open final.
Morgenbesser said: “Tennis suits us and our quality standards. We have two home tournaments, which is also very important, where we can implement our ideas in the broadcast, be it in Kitzbuhel or in the future at the Stadthalle, for which we have a five-year contract.
“But there is more besides Dominic Thiem, and we have also secured the ATP Cup and the Davis Cup because we want to represent the entirety of Austrian tennis, and not just Thiem.”
After soccer, skiing is the most popular sport in Austria, but with ORF having recently retained rights to FIS Alpine and Nordic World Championships and World Cup events in multi-year deals, Morgenbesser does not see it coming on the radar in the near future.
He said: “Alpine skiing is – from a personal point of view – a really great right, but viewed realistically: The tender was last year and the rights have been granted for several years.”
Morgenbesser added: “Austria is a winter sports nation, but the rights are with ORF for the long term. Should an opportunity arise – in four, five years, or whenever the rights are marketed – then it would be interesting. What you shouldn’t forget: the rights are divided. You have to buy international rights, and national and international rights from other nations. That is challenging.”
Servus also has to find a balance with programming in other areas, including drama and entertainment.
Morgenbesser said: “It is not an issue for us to become a sports channel. We are a full programme broadcaster, so that directs our actions. We have selected the sports products for which we have bid and got the chance to have a balance in programming. If you look at it over the year, the fiction part clearly outweighs the sports broadcasts.”