Tuesday 16 January 2018

Olympics for sale: the big bucks game changer for RTÉ

Why Montrose can't afford to do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.

In a spin: Canada's Rosannagh Maclennan at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but will any of us be able to watch in 2020?
In a spin: Canada's Rosannagh Maclennan at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but will any of us be able to watch in 2020?
Katie Taylor

Joe O'Shea

It's the summer of 2020 and Katie Taylor, about to turn 33, is fighting to crown her glorious Olympic career in Tokyo. But where do you watch it? Have you signed up for Discovery-Eurosport 3 on your pay-TV bundle? Or bought a pay-per-view package for your tablet or mobile?

Should you gamble, miss the first few fights and ask the neighbours - who shelled out for the multi-platform package - if you can drop around for the final?

And who are those English guys doing the build-up and commentary? Surely they should know Katie is a proud Wicklow woman and not a Dub...

The prospect of watching our greatest Olympians on some obscure, pay-TV channel may not sound like the ideal scenario, but it became more real this week.

The decision by the IOC to award the European broadcast rights to Discovery-owned Eurosport (a deal worth €1.3bn) has big implications for traditional, public-service broadcasters like RTÉ and the BBC.

And while our own national broadcaster has said it will make "every effort to secure rights to the summer Games in 2020 and 2024", there is a widespread acceptance that this deal is a game-changer.

Previously, RTÉ, the BBC and other national broadcasters clubbed together to buy the rights from the IOC through the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

This guaranteed endless hours of free-to-air coverage, huge audiences for RTÉ and the sense that - with major events such as a Katie Taylor fight - the nation was watching together, in the company of familiar presenters and pundits.

It also made the Games relatively affordable for smaller national broadcasters such as our own.

Now these broadcasters will have to go to Eurosport - a relatively obscure French-owned sports station recently bought by industry giant Discovery - and negotiate "sub-licensing" deals for domestic markets. And Discovery will be looking to recoup as much as possible of that €1.3bn.

But does this mean that smaller public-service broadcasters will be shut out and we face paying for our Olympic coverage in the same way we now pay for everything from golf and Premier League football to European club rugby?

Not necessarily, says industry expert Martin Ross, who reckons that while RTÉ, the BBC and others will now face a more complicated, financially-fraught task, there is still plenty of hope for the traditionalist armchair fan.

"There is no doubt that the news is a blow to RTÉ and the BBC," says Ross.

"They will have to go to the negotiating table with Discovery-Eurosport. Since Discovery took over the channel, they have been very aggressively going after the rights to big events. This is by far the biggest deal they have done and they will want to recoup as much as the cost as possible through sub-licensing.

"But there are a number of factors in RTÉ's favour. The IOC has stipulated that there will have to be 200 hours of free-to-air coverage in domestic markets.

''It is unlikely that Eurosport are going to be able or inclined to set up a free-to-air channel for a smaller market like Ireland for 2018 or 2020. So RTÉ, or possibly TV3, would be a natural partner.

"Also, the summer Olympics are amongst the listed major sports events in the UK and Ireland that must be shown free to air. That will offer further protection for public service broadcasters".

Ross, online news-editor for the sports-business trade magazine Sportcal, says there is one more crucial factor.

"Free-to-air coverage of the Olympics remains absolutely crucial to the IOC and their sponsors. They want a mass audience. So this is not the end of the Olympics on public service broadcasting across Europe. But it is certainly going to have a big impact".

The most likely scenario, for the 2018 Winter and 2020 Summer Olympics at least, is that RTÉ and the BBC will continue to carry many hours of coverage, including the big events of national interest, while Eurosport expands its brand and reach across Europe with wall-to-wall coverage.

As Ross points out, the money men behind the multi-billion dollargames will not want them completely hidden away behind a pay-wall or on some relatively obscure corner of your digi-box.

"If you are the IOC and, just as importantly, their sponsors, you want as many Irish people as possible watching Katie Taylor.

''You want as many Europeans as you can reach watching Usain Bolt run the 100 metres".

The Olympic Council may also learn from the mistakes made by sports such as cricket and golf, who rushed to take the big bucks offered by the Pay-For-View boys and saw public interest in their sports fall dramatically.

Veteran BBC commentator Peter Alliss (for some the 'Voice Of Golf') recently lambasted both his employers and the Royal & Ancient blazers, who run it, for the loss of the British Open to Sky Sports.

Alliss characterised the deal as another nail in the coffin for his sport, which has seen participation levels fall dramatically, a phenomenon that many attribute to the almost total absence of the game from public-service broadcasters.

"Think about the audiences the BBC get for the Masters over Sky," said Alliss. "It's always five times as much. Shouldn't the R&A take those figures into account, when participation levels in the game are falling?"

Closer to home, Minister of State for Transport, Tourism and Sport Michael Ring has described Discovery's Olympics deal as "very disappointing for Irish athletes and Irish sports fans".

"RTÉ cannot compete with budgets on that scale. It's disappointing and ultimately sports fans will lose out."

Optimists will say the summer Olympics remain listed by the Irish Government as "crown jewels" that must have a very strong free-to-air element (the actual list is currently under review as many call for the Six Nations Rugby to be included).

Pessimists will point out that the British Open was on a similar list in the UK. Until it was "de-listed", that is, and Sky Sports swooped in with £10m per year, enough to persuade the R&A to break a 50-year partnership with the BBC and take it behind the pay-wall.

In crude terms, in the international sports-rights market, money doesn't so much talk as scream until everybody else shuts up.

The likes of Katie Taylor and Usain Bolt may have the talent. But Sky, BT Sport and now Discovery-Eurosport have the muscle.

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