While the major internet companies are not yet competing
with traditional broadcasters for premium live rights to the top leagues and
properties, complementary coverage of matches and events on platforms such as Amazon,
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has become commonplace, especially as part of endeavours
to connect with younger audiences.

However, some markets and sports have been faster than
others in gravitating to digital, with a reluctance to undermine the value of
the traditional rights model often a deterrent.

Compare, for instance, the NBA, which has a YouTube channel offering a multitude of clips, and over 9 million subscribers, and English soccer’s Premier League, which still does not have an official presence on the platform, and makes it a priority to prevent unauthorised videos being shown online.

Infront, the Wanda-owned international sports agency, works
with over 180 rights-holders across 25 different sports, with a majority of
these in Europe and Asia, where there are more restrictions on the use of
digital content than in the major leagues in North America.

Heimes, the agency’s senior director, digital media, platforms and services, tells Sportcal Insight: “There’s still a big difference between what the NBA and NFL do [compared to other markets] in terms of direct-to-consumer, how they think about content, engagement, on which platforms and services they’re active, which value proposition they formulate, what they know about their fans, and how they package their rights – in most instances in a non-exclusive fashion.

“The NBA carves out a lot and the NFL does tri-casts, with some of their games on Amazon, a couple of networks and their own season pass offering. I don’t think that Europe is in that space yet. If you take it from a sports rights perspective the concept of exclusivity still matters to a lot of our rights-holders, and it matters to a lot of their clients, mostly broadcasters, and to some degree to sponsors too, if they get any audiovisual content rights at all.”

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Heimes: ‘Without any content rights, social media would be an empty proposition’

While it acknowledges the need to respect existing media
rights contracts and the demands of broadcasters, Infront, which is stepping up
its digital offering, with a worldwide team of 250, including at subsidiaries Omnigon
and Host Broadcast Services, is encouraging the sports it works with to be more
flexible in the sphere.

“Everyone seems to be debating OTT right now,” says Heimes. “It’s great to debate OTT, but if you don’t have any appealing rights, if you don’t have any appealing content, it’s going to be very tough. And the sponsors are demanding more content these days because they want to be storytellers. What do you give them if you don’t have any carve-outs from broadcasters? Finding the right balance is very important.

“We can play a role because we’re also a rights-trader, and we’re trying to innovate there and say we do understand that sponsors have certain requirements, and we do understand that as a rights-holder, say a football club or a league or a federation, you want to be talking to your fans directly. Without any content rights, social media would be an empty proposition.

“I think we are iterating ourselves, and it’s a mutual learning process because in the end it’s a trade-off. How much would someone pay you for exclusivity versus how much is it worth to have that carve-out in order to build your own fanbase? How much is that fanbase worth during that three-year rights cycle? Is that worth more for the future than not carving it [digital] out and giving it exclusively to someone else?

Rights deals these days, in most cases, have a fallback option that if it [an event] is not broadcast you can take it to social media, you can take it to digital, you can take it to your own OTT offering

“There are also models in between. Rights deals these days, in most cases, have a fallback option that if it [an event] is not broadcast you can take it to social media, you can take it to digital, you can take it to your own OTT offering. There’s some interesting hybrid models that at least ensure that you can get your sport and your competition and your media product out there. I think we are playing across that piano keyboard, from end to end. It really depends on the sport, the client and the context.”

It is felt that more traditional sports can learn lessons from emerging viewing experiences such as eSports, in which Infront is now active through the signing of exclusive deals with Stark eSports, the European agency, and Berlin-based Penta Sports, and a tie-up with France’s Team Vitality announced in May.

While established broadcasters have begun to showcase
eSports, their main home is online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and
Twitch, the Amazon-owned video portal, which allow more flexibility in terms of
how content can be presented.

Heimes says: “If you look at eSports as a community it’s natively digital. The target audience is creating on digital, is consuming on digital, is communicating on digital, and the whole proposition is just embedded in every single sense. It’s a digital property.

“Take curling or horse riding – their audiences might not necessarily be natively digital, but rights-holders need to start innovating to capture those audiences on all platforms, and to continue to be of interest and build new fanbases.

Sports like curling need to start innovating to capture their audiences on all platforms

“The requirement towards us as the digital adviser in eSports might be a very different mandate than in curling, handball, badminton or some of the more ‘classic’ sports, and it’s a challenge to be able to deliver a different kind of value proposition to a different set of clients. Since we’re highly diversified as a business, there is a strong demand for a diversification in digital as well.”

As a former executive at YouTube (he was the platform’s head of news and sports partnerships for EMEA before joining Infront last year), Heimes naturally lays great store by official video content, and, in his different roles, has advised various Olympic sports federations on how they can best utilise it to attract audiences and generate new revenues online.

Infront demonstrated its commitment to such content only this week as, together with Perform, the digital sports content and media group, it completed the acquisition of the European Handball Federation’s media and sponsorship rights from 2020 to 2030 in a landmark agreement worth between €500 million ($577 million) and €600 million in rights fees and services.

Along with the financial commitments, the digital services
on offer in the partnership are thought to have been key in securing the
rights, and, in addition to major competitions such as the European Championships,
the EHF will be able to showcase live coverage of lower-profile events for the
first time.

However, Heimes believes that clubs and other sports bodies can
achieve their online audience and revenue goals even without rights, if they
show the commensurate level of creativity, and points to the achievements of
Copa90, the online soccer network in which Infront now has a stake.

He says: “A football league doesn’t necessarily have fans, but they have commercial partners they work with, so do the clubs. There’s already a tension between the leagues and the clubs, because the clubs are crying for more carve-outs to create an appealing commercial proposition and commercial opportunities for sponsors, while also trying to offer more engaging content to their fans.

“The tension will continue to exist, I guess, but I personally feel that you can create commercial opportunities and build audiences without rights. Look at Copa90 and the brands they work with.

“I’m not saying this is the route to take for a club, but if you look at what Real Madrid and Barcelona and a lot of others do where the rights are centrally marketed by the league, they’re investing in sponsored and branded content. They’re going down the route of creative and they’re building their own activation platforms and activation ideas.

“Some of them are entering gaming and eSports, not only because they want to create traditional sponsorship opportunities, but because they know what fans deeply care about and because a millennial audience does not really have a high tolerance for traditional advertising.”

eSports: Some soccer clubs are getting involved because they know what fans deeply care about

During the Fifa World Cup, which kicks off in Russia this month, soccer followers will be bombarded with digital content from both rights-holders and non-rights-holders looking to maximise the return on one of sport’s truly global events.

Some of the more innovative offerings will be from Copa90, which
specialises in fan-focused content away from the field, and will have a team of
about 300 working on the tournament.

Copa90, which launched out of the UK in 2012, already has more than 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube, an existing investor in the venture, and fans will have access to a variety of content, much of it delivered by ‘Creators’ out in Russia. This will also be available on Snapchat, the multimedia messaging application, through a partnership announced in April.

Infront recently acquired a 10-per-cent stake in Copa90, which it regards as complementary, given its own status as an agency partner of numerous soccer leagues and federations, including Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s DFB, plus Fifa, and as the owner of HBS, the host broadcaster of the World Cup.

Heimes has a personal involvement as a member of the board of directors of Copa90, and the YouTube investment came when he and Claude Ruibal, now Infront’s head of digital, production and sports services, were still at the Google-owned platform.

However, Heimes denied that these connections had prompted Infront to “pull the trigger,” saying: “It was quite clear as we were forming our digital strategy [that Copa90 would form part of it]. We started talking with those guys about some projects, just as they were starting their Series B funding round.”

Other prominent investors in Copa90 have included US media
giant Liberty Media, which paid $10.8 million for a 14-per-cent stake in
October 2015, and Turner International, which was one of the larger investors
in the Series B round.

On Infront’s motivation, Heimes says: “The 90 minutes [of a match] is not enough. Copa90 was one of the first companies to realise that, and to put cameras outside the stadium. It is 100-per-cent complementary with what we do, so we can join the dots.”

The tie-up also offers the potential for Copa90 to get closer to rights-holders and TV networks, building on partnerships it has already established with the likes of Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of North America’s Major League Soccer, Telemundo, the USA-based Spanish-language broadcaster, and Esporte Interativo, the Brazilian sports network.

Copa90 has a partnership with Major League Soccer’s Soccer United Marketing

“When you talk about football in the US, you can surely talk about grassroots,” Heimes says. “But MLS and the national team are part of that story too, and they [Copa90] want to cover those stories, but also those that a TV broadcaster would not necessarily tell.”

He continues: “I don’t think they will change their approach, but they will have more access to talk to players, and the leagues, as well as the fans. There’s already work they’re doing for brands who are partners of the clubs and leagues. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do things like ‘Derby Days’ [a show about the greatest rivalries in global soccer].”

Asked if he can envisage Copa90 becoming a digital home for soccer tournaments, Heimes says: “I can definitely foresee strategies in that space. If a major event like next year’s Women’s World Cup comes along, and we’re a partner, with HBS, they can do the behind-the-scenes, while we do what goes on in the stadium.

“Whether highlights go on Copa90 is not up to us or them. It’s up to Fifa and the rights-holders. I wouldn’t say yes or no to this, as it’s not for me to determine. There are enough stories to be told outside the 90 minutes, for sure.”

The investment from Infront will go towards data analysis
and the expansion of Copa90 into new markets, including Asia.

It’s more and more relevant to supply partners with [information on] who their fans and communities are  

Heimes said: “It’s more and more relevant to supply partners with [information on] who their fans and communities are. It’s important to know who the audience is, for example, when you go to media buyers and advertisers.

“Copa90 have always had a direct connection to their fans, capturing insights and data around, on and about them. The company has invested heavily in that space in the last two years, and will do more going forward.”

Wanda’s Chinese background provides an opportunity for Copa90 to look beyond its existing major markets of Europe and North America, where Copa90 US was launched last year, albeit different social media platforms predominate in the Far East.

Acknowledging China is an “obvious” target market, Heimes says: “Wanda Group and Wanda Sports have ties to local content shops. Banana TV is tied to social media and digital media production. They’re not doing the same as Copa90, but are in a similar space. We will explore what we can do together.”