TV Times

wsc302Rupert Murdoch blew terrestrial channels out of the water to buy Premier League rights in 1992 but he could now face tougher competition, writes Gary Andrews

Two decades ago, Rupert Murdoch staked the success of his fledgling satellite TV business on paying £300 million for rights to the newly formed Premier League. Since then Sky has remained unchallenged in its dominance – and the sums of money are much larger – but there is a possibility they could be out-Skyed by companies looking to establish new technology in our living rooms.

At the start of 2012, the Daily Mail and Guardian suggested that technology giants Apple and Google were weighing up bids for the next set of Premier League rights. Having two non-broadcasters bid for English football rights would not come as a surprise given the rapid developments in the next generation of television sets. Both companies have the funds to challenge Sky. Even if the reports are just rumours, they still offer a glimpse into a possible future for sports broadcasting in this country.

Britain’s TV viewing is already starting to fragment from the more traditional broadcasting model. Increased viewing on catch-up services such as the BBC iPlayer or mobile applications like Sky Go mean you no longer have to make a date on the sofa or down the pub to watch a match or highlights. Kentaro’s internet-only broadcast of England’s 2010 World Cup qualifier in Ukraine may have seemed a curiosity back in 2009, but watching an FA Cup qualifying match between Ascot United and Wembley through Budweiser’s Facebook page this season felt positively normal, and even an indication of sports broadcasting’s future.

Google have already teamed up with several TV manufacturers for their own product. They are looking to launch fully in the UK at some point in the next 12 months. Industry whispers suggest that Apple are edging closer to creating their own TV product. As with their mobile offering, Google make heavy use of apps for viewing purposes, which also moves further away from the traditional channel-based broadcasting. If either company is to be a success, they need to give the public a reason to buy their goods, which is why the rumours of both bidding for football rights are not as strange as they first sound.

The Google-owned YouTube snapped up the rights to the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, while Google TV already has a pretty impressive set of sports apps in the US, such as the NHL’s app that provides statistics, video replays and live updates during ice hockey games. Apple may be wary of shelling out a large sum for Britain’s domestic rights, but they could find the foreign rights more attractive. They have already revolutionised the music industry with iTunes. Who is to say they will not do the same for television?

An app-led future would provide clubs with an even more efficient way of selling and communicating directly to their fans. Manchester City, say, would be major beneficiaries of Google’s YouTube app for internet-connected TVs. The Premier League’s richest club have an in-depth YouTube channel with an impressive array of content. Having this available at the flick of a remote control would remove the need to spend money on launching a channel on Sky, like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have done.

From there, it is not a stretch to imagine an official Manchester City app for a Google or Apple TV platform. This could offer a range of extra content, statistics and viewpoints during and after live games, perhaps even replacing the commentary to a more Blues-biased viewpoint. City fans would be spared Jamie Redknapp’s post-match thoughts in favour of a more club-focused analysis.

Given the pace of development in TV and the more fragmented nature of viewing, would the larger clubs be tempted to make a play to alter the collective rights agreement and look to broadcast their games through an Android or Apple TV app? By cutting out Sky as the middleman, the clubs would have a lot more control over the content – a direct line to the living room sofa, something they never could have dreamed of before. This might remove the need for Geoff Shreeves’s post-match interviews and possibly even Match of the Day. It might also encourage fans of these teams to become more insular than they already are.

The collective deal may prove a stumbling block to any development, but unlike other rights, the land of apps and internet-connected TV is still relatively virgin territory. Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s managing director, may have caused outrage with the idea that Premier League clubs should be free to negotiate their own overseas TV deals, but it is harder to react to an area where the rules are still developing.

Football is inherently conservative when it comes to technology and Sky will inevitably fight to retain one of the main pillars of their business. In five years, we could be looking at other sports and debating the failure of football to seize the chances offered by Google and Apple. Competition for Sky from these technology giants is, on one hand, welcome. But the implications of potentially placing more power in the hands of the clubs may not necessarily be a positive. Either way, football broadcasters, governing bodies and clubs need to start planning how they want to handle a new era of TV viewing.

From WSC 302 April 2012