Infront, the international sports marketing
agency, is without doubt the dominant player in winter sports, and this has
inevitably prompted monopoly accusations, but the company denies that it abuses
its strong position, claiming that the federations profit from its in-depth commitment
to their disciplines.
The Switzerland-based agency recently filled the only gap left in its global winter sports portfolio by signing a four-year deal to distribute the media rights of the International Skating Union for the next four seasons.
The agreement covers World and European
Championships and World Cup and Grand Prix competitions in events across speed
skating, short track, figure skating and synchronised skating in all
territories except a select group of major markets from 2019-20 to 2022-23.
It brings to an end a long association
between the ISU and European Broadcasting Union, which dates back 50 years, and
is a coup for Infront in its continuing contest with the umbrella body of
mainly public-service broadcasters for premium winter sports rights.
While Infront does not have a major
involvement with the International Olympic Committee for the quadrennial winter
Olympic Games, the tie-up with the ISU means that the agency can again boast relationships
with all seven participating international federations until at least 2022 (see
Infront, owned by China’s Wanda Group, was previously responsible for the sale of sponsorship and hospitality rights to the ISU World and European Championships and World Cup speed skating events through its 2015 acquisition of Dutch sports marketing firm Referee Sportsmarketing, although the rights passed to House of Sports, another Dutch company, last year.
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Infront partnerships with international winter
Start of existing relationship
Details of current deal
International Biathlon Union (IBU)
Title sponsorship and advertising rights for World
International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation
Media and major sponsorship rights and media
International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF)
Media and sponsorship rights for World Championships
International Luge Federation (FIL)
Main sponsorship package and advertising rights for
International Skating Union (ISU)
Media rights to World and European Championships and
International Ski Federation (FIS)
Media, sponsorship and hospitality rights and media
World Curling Federation (WCF)
Media rights to World, European and Pacific-Asia
*Infront also holds media and sponsorship rights to
Winter sports strategy The accumulation of media and sponsorship rights across the sector (Infront also has deals with various national ski associations for FIS World Cup events) has not been a coincidence, according to Bruno Marty, the agency’s senior vice president winter sports, who tells Sportcal Insight: “We decided in 2006 when we lost a lot of the football rights, because Fifa took many of these in-house and marketed them internally, that we had to diversify, that we had to decide on a different strategy.”
One area of focus became winter sports, which, as Marty points out, was very fragmented at the time, with Italian agency Media Partners strong in skiing events, the International Biathlon Federation having its own agency, some federations handling their own rights, and Infront’s main partner being the International Ice Hockey Federation, for the annual IIHF World Championship.
The Swiss executive says: “Step by step we were quite lucky in that we could acquire some agencies [including Media Partners, rebranded as Infront Italy in 2007], and got into partnerships with federations directly, and have built the winter sports portfolio over the last 12 years.”
The ISU was the final part of the jigsaw, and a welcome addition for Marty who states: “They have World Championships and World Cups taking place in Europe, Asia and North America so it’s really a global property that is perfect in terms of a fit with all the other winter sports rights we have.”
He is speaking at the Nordic World
Championships in Seefeld, Austria, another property being marketed by Infront
under a wide-ranging deal with FIS, the international ski federation, covering media
rights and production and sponsorship, which came into effect this year.
While it remains influential in soccer, notably in soccer’s Serie A, and other sports including badminton, basketball, handball and volleyball, Infront sees great value in winter sports, given the opportunity for multiple sales, with many European broadcasters showing several disciplines over the weekends, and sponsors enticed by combined packages.
“When we are able to sell [TV rights] out of one hand, it makes a lot of sense for us and for the clients as well,” says Marty. “The same goes for sponsors. Each winter sport has a certain focus on certain countries, be they in Scandinavia, the Alps or Eastern Europe.
“With Alpine skiing you might only have a strong presence in Austria and Switzerland and some others. By combining them [the sports] you can create better packages, and sales prices for sponsors are still much lower than an IOC package, for example. You get a lot of value, [access to] a lot of viewers at a relatively attractive price.”
He adds: “Then there’s also a lot of synergies. I’m mainly in charge of acquiring these rights. A business acquisition is almost more important than sales because there’s only one Nordic World Championships, to give a specific example. If you lose it, you can’t replace it with another one, so the acquisition of these rights is critical.”
It is often easier to buy rights for
multiple winter sports than for summer ones, in part because in some countries
there is a single federation for snow sports, and another for ice sports (for
example, in Italy, with FISI and FISG respectively).
Bruno Marty, Infront’s SVP, winter sports
Asked if Infront had benefited from a ‘domino effect’ in signing deals with national and international federations, Marty said: “I think so, to some extent. Then sometimes you hear the concern that you are building a monopoly in this field.
“But then there’s a lot of arguments against that. If I have more rights, I put an even stronger focus into providing good services and can hire more people, and better people.
“In the end I don’t have one single example where we have misused our strong position in the sports. Partners only benefit. We have more sponsors, better brands and we can develop new technologies.”
In terms of technology, he gives the example of the new soft LED lighting banners featuring sponsors that were installed in the finishing area at the recent Alpine World Ski Championships in Åre in Sweden, another event covered by the FIS deal.
Marty says: “That’s a development which costs a six-digit figure. If we were a small agency we couldn’t pay for that and now we do it because we know we will be in this business for the next years and it makes sense.
“And we can use these banners not only in Alpine skiing, but also in Nordic skiing, and maybe in bobsleigh at some point in time. You can also invest more money and help the sports events by doing that.”
Infront’s dominant position in winter sports has also facilitated sponsorship cross sales in which partners have invested in multiple disciplines. These include Liqui Moly, the Germany-based automotive lubricant brand that has been a sponsor of both the Alpine and Nordic World Championships in February.
“I think next winter they will be in Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, bobsleigh, biathlon, maybe even some more [sports],” says Marty. “There’s many sponsors which invest in different platforms with us, and not only in winter sports. In football and winter sports, there’s a lot of those synergies. I would say maybe 20 per cent of the revenues are coming from cross sales, with other colleagues helping us [in winter sports], and us helping them.”
Free-to-air benefits The demands of sponsors for exposure help explain the prioritising of free-to-air television coverage of winter sports in the major markets, with public-service networks ARD and ZDF in Germany, SRG SSR in Switzerland and ORF in Austria, Infront’s host broadcasting partner for the Nordic World Championships, among the lead protagonists.
This month’s Alpine World Championships, produced by Infront, in partnership with Swedish public broadcaster SVT, are said to have had a global reach of over 815 million households.
Marty says: “The majority of the Nordic and Alpine rights we sell to the public broadcasters in the most important countries – Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Norway. The same for Finland.”
He adds that with pay-TV, “you could maximize the money in the short term, but then you will lose in the mid- to long-term, and for us it’s even more [defined] because in most cases we also manage the sponsorship rights.
“That makes a lot of sense for a federation because we have an interest to be on free TV. Otherwise we would basically lower the value of our marketing rights to the same events if we went to pay-TV.”
However, Infront is not averse to partnering
with free-to-air commercial broadcasters or offering some content to pay-TV
networks to broaden coverage and drive income streams.
“In many countries you have strong commercial broadcasters in place, so it doesn’t mean you will always be on public television,” says Marty. “We all remember RTL and ski jumping in Germany. That was, I think, a good time for the sport, and it was still on free-TV. Ice hockey was for some years on TV4 in Sweden, also a commercial broadcaster, and we’ve had MTV in Finland. There are cases where we work with commercial broadcasters in some countries.
“Of course, should there be a viable combination between pay and free, whereby we could maximise revenues as well as attract a new partner and at the same time keep or actually complement the free broadcaster, this could be an interesting model. At the end of the day, we all want to grow and innovate sports and for that we may need to extend or change partners.”
FIS events Infront replaced the EBU as the media and sponsorship rights distributor and host broadcaster for the biennial Alpine and Nordic World Championships, and the initial partnership with FIS, which ran to 2021, has already been extended through to 2025, after the agency saw off joint bids from IMG-Tridem and EBU-Lagardère, in a two-month tender process last year.
Infront is also the main distributor of media
and marketing rights to FIS World Cup events in Alpine and Nordic skiing,
freestyle skiing and snowboard across the season, albeit these do not include
events in the major markets of Austria and Switzerland, which rest with the EBU.
FIS is practically unique among
international federations in having the commercial rights to its World Cup
events controlled by national federations, and Infront lost the Swiss events in
2016 when the EBU signed a six-year media rights deal with the national
The agency did take legal action
complaining that a matching offer right in the previous deal that it and SRG
SSR had with Swiss Ski had not been respected.
However, the EBU denied any wrongdoing, and,
following negotiations between the three parties, the dispute was resolved, and
a settlement reached, with the rights remaining with the body of public
The EBU has long held the rights to the Austrian FIS World Cup events, and the partnership with the Austrian Ski Association (ÖSV) was extended last December in a three-year deal running to the end of the 2020-21 season, which includes an option for a further three years.
Marty admitted that, as a former chief executive of Swiss Ski, he found it “quite tough” that Infront no longer had the rights to events in the country, but said that it “will try to be back when the current EBU deal runs out.”
The Austrian skiing rights appear to represent more of a challenge, with Marty saying: “They are the toughest ones, I have to say that. [ÖSV] president Peter Schröcksnadel always tells me directly that a monopoly, having all the rights with Infront, would not help the sport. But then I try to counter and we have long discussions.”
He added that the pair had further prolonged talks at the Alpine World Championships this month, “but I think I cannot yet convince him.”
Marty believes that the division of the FIS
World Cup rights is not conducive to the best distribution or presentation of
He says: “I think it would help the [TV] product to have them [in one place] because now a broadcaster has to acquire rights from two different entities, the EBU and us. That’s always a different game compared to having all out of one hand.
“The Swiss and the Austrian federations are very strong ones. By having them [the rights] with one entity we could do more in terms of standardised TV production. It’s great TV production, but a bit different.
“Austrian TV produce as they want, and Swiss TV do it a bit differently, and there’s no real standard at all the races, and the standard is lower for some races. I think Alpine skiing is still one of the sports where it’s most difficult to show to the fan at home how fast, how steep, how dangerous, how difficult it is.
“Normally, I like the camera in snow behind the gate flags. That shows the speed an athlete passes at, but the steepness is still hard to transmit. If you invested jointly with all the broadcasters, you could probably do more in terms of data. Too much data is not good, but maybe you could show a little bit more, not only the speed, but the g-forces in the turns, the acceleration instead of the speed only. There’s many more things you could do in Alpine skiing.”