Braodband of gold

Where does the future of football on the internet lie? Bob Roberts believes big clubs hold the whip hand, while general, free-access sites are in trouble

On Tuesday May 14, 2001, Celtic made internet foot­ball history by transmitting Tommy Boyd’s testimonial game against Manchester United as the first ever live broadband broadcast. The broadcast on their official website was the first “free-to-air” football match available on the internet, with pic­ture quality allegedly comparable to television.

This seems to be the real value for football on the internet and for clubs who are using the medium to deliver their “product” to audiences outside the nat­ional boundaries of television coverage. Boyd’s testimonial was available on Channel 5, guaranteeing an ex­tra audience of about five people outside Glasgow, while the internet transmission was available to view­ers in China as well as North America, Australia and Europe.

No prizes for guessing why the club sees this as a valuable marketing exercise: there can’t be many sup­porters left in Scotland who don’t already own a replica shirt, but there are plenty in the rest of the world. Leo Mindel, director of Celtic’s online commercial part­­ner, who designed the “MatchDay­Live” plat­form on which the games are delivered, said at the time: “The internet is an excellent distribution tool for clubs and will enable them in the future ­to max­imise the value of their unique con­tent.”

Eoin Brophy, director of Eur­opean com­­munications for Servecast, who stream the matches, con­­cluded from the broadcast: “Web­cast means that many more football fans around the world will be able to watch their teams live over the in­ternet. Celtic FC is setting a precedent which other football clubs around the world will in­evitably be following in the future.”

Sadly, he’s right. Scottish Premier League clubs get money from centralised television rights deals that the League negotiates for them, but while they are possibly not big or clever enough to negotiate their own worldwide rights deals, individual clubs are in a pos­ition to “stream” their matches over the web. Celtic are constrained by the terms of the SPL’s television con­tracts from offering live internet coverage of their league matches, al­though it’s possible that clubs will try to secure live internet rights for SPL matches as part of the new broadcasting rights contract that comes into effect from the 2002-03 season.

And Celtic are by no means the only ones. While the global appeal necessary to make live webcasts profitable might not apply to, say, Leicester City, some of the bigger clubs in England are already following suit. Under the Premier League’s new media rights contract ne­goti­ated last year, which comes into ef­fect for three years from the beginning of next season, individual clubs will have the right to broadcast delayed foot­age, highlights and goals from their home matches over the in­ternet. They are currently not allow­ed to show full live coverage of league games, because the Premier League is concerned that that would da­mage its live television rights deals.

However, at least some of the bigger clubs will insist on the right to broad­cast live coverage of their matches un­der the terms of the next media deal, which is due to begin with the 2004-05 sea­son. Last year Gra­nada signed a contract with Liv­­erpool, paying £20 mil­lion for a 50 per cent stake in Liv­erpool FC Broadband, a joint venture established to exploit the club’s media and commercial rights around the world. Granada also owns 9.9 per cent of the club itself. The company has developed a similar relationship with Arsenal, having paid £47 million for a half share in AFC Broadband.

In May, the new company launched its own broadband service for Liverpool. The site, www.liver­, allows the club’s supporters across the world to watch video clips of Liverpool’s home Premiership matches. Fans will, of course, be charged to use the service, but they will have access to five video channels through which they will be able to watch a variety of coverage, including highlights from reserve matches as well as doc­umentaries on the club’s history. If they really want, they can also listen to radio commentary of the game, see footage of players before matches (how early this service comes on line is not clear) and watch coverage of post-match press conference.

Manchester United also plan to offer pay coverage of their matches using both their internet site and their club channel, MUTV. The club’s official website re­ceives ten million page impressions a day, 90 per cent of which originate from outside the UK. The internet rights to home matches are currently available only after a 72-hour embargo period, but Man Utd’s chief executive Peter Kenyon commented re­cently that the rights were still a valuable product, even three days later.

Arsenal have just launched a new website, also op­erated by Granada Broadband, which is divided into three content areas: “Guest” (available to all), “Arsenal Worldwide” (registration only, but free) and “Arsenal Worldwide Plus” (£45 for 12 months). Subscribers to Arsenal Worldwide Plus get to see Premiership video highlights and archive material.

So the clubs certainly believe there is money in the web, though it’s more likely to come from someone in Beijing than Brechin. While it looks as though they will be able to cash in without contravening any existing TV deals, generic football sites are facing a much grimmer future – all the more so since the general dotcom bubble burst – because no money changes hands for the content they are providing. Already the fall-out has been quick and bloody.

In July last year Neilsen Media Research reported that 60 per cent of UK adult internet users regularly use sport and entertainment sites and that those users are mainly upmarket, male, older decision-makers, an extremely attractive profile to advertisers.

Just a month prior to these findings BSkyB bought the Sports Internet Group in a deal that valued the company at over £300 million. Even then, that looked like silly money in anyone’s language, and recent ev­ents have supported that judgment. Sportal, the UK-based sports internet portal, produced the official Euro 2000 website and at around the same time turned down a bid from Canal Plus that valued the company at around $400 million. Now it is surviving by the skin of its teeth.

Last month Digital Sport sold its subsidiary One Sport Limited, the owner of the website, to Sportsio Limited for a “nominal cash con­sideration”. Usually the employment of that term in a business deal indicates that the price is the equivalent to the extra amount above £5 million that Coventry City had to pay to secure the services of Lee Hughes from West Brom. A quid, basically.

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month