Page last updated at 23:14 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 00:14 UK

Can sport still net winning TV deals?

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United are filmed
There are a number of challenges facing the televising of sport

Sport and television may have to re-tune their relationship in the current economic climate, as a number of pressures squeeze what has until now been a very profitable relationship.

However a drop in advertising, piracy on the internet, a maze of European legislation, and a possible regulatory shake-up in the UK, all mean the old ways of doing business - and the jackpot fees for sporting events - are no longer certain.

The well-publicised problems of satellite broadcaster Setanta, which has sought to renegotiate its rights, is the highest profile example of the new television landscape.

It is trying to renegotiate its television rights contracts with sports rights holders - including the Premier League, FA, and Scottish Premier League - due to problems it is having with cash-flow.

Television rights values in the Netherlands are falling, with pay-channel Sport1 reportedly succeeding in massive reductions in its rights costs on key contracts.

Meanwhile, English football's Premier League has yet to make an award of its domestic near-live, mobile, or internet clip rights packages.

Timing of sales

Joerg Van Appen works for leading sports rights marketing agency Sportfive, which markets the television and marketing rights of more than 30 football clubs and more than 270 other athletes and sports clubs.

Financial guarantees are something that sports rights holders will want in the current environment

Joerg Van Appen, Sportfive

"In times of economic downturn it is very important to get the timing of a sale right in each different geographical market," he told the BBC at a C5 Business seminar in London.

"If you can wait before putting your sports properties on sale because of the current economic downturn, then it is best to wait."

He said one sport that had done well in the timing of its rights sale was English cricket, which - before the downturn started to bite - signed improved deals covering the years up to 2013.

Hamburg-based Mr Van Appen has worked with Fifa, Uefa, the English Premier League, Serie A, and Bundesliga, as well as with major Italian football club Juventus.

And he said that in the current economic climate it was no longer possible for sports rights holders to assume fees from broadcasters would continue to increase.

Chelsea"s French footballer Florent Malouda (R) with Arsenal"s Cameroon player Alexandre Song
The Premier League says it is in a "fortunate position" regarding TV rights

He also that sports organisations now wanted more cast-iron guarantees that they were going to get all their payment instalments due from broadcasters.

"Financial guarantees are something that sports rights holders will want in the current environment," Mr Van Appen said.

"You are not likely to get bank guarantees in these times, so it will have to be a corporate guarantee."

'Fortunate position'

It is those future payment instalments due from Setanta to various UK football organisations that are now attracting attention.

The English Premier League - which awarded one package of live football to Setanta - says it is confident of receiving its cash payments in the coming months.

"The way their payments [Setanta] are structured, they put down a deposit, then a tranche, then there are six equal instalments. The last payment was in January, the next segment will be during the close season," said a league spokesman.

Closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
Experts say top level events like the Olympics should weather the storm

"We are in a fortunate position, the main tranche of our rights have been sold, we exceeded other people's expectations, and had a 5% uplift in these rights. That is at a time when people are telling us that flat is the new up."

The Football Association, which awarded some international match rights to the broadcaster, acknowledged the current general economic climate was "sensitive", but would not confirm reports that Setanta had been late with its most recent payment in March.

And in Scotland, Rangers vice-chairman John McClelland confirmed that the board of the Scottish Premier League met Setanta recently to discuss their existing and future deals.

Tender process

But, despite the TV market uncertainty, Mr Van Appen - who was responsible for Sportfive securing European broadcasting rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic games from the IOC - says that rights values still can be maximised, even in a downturn, by clever use of the tender process.

"If you have a truly open tender process for the bigger mega-events then you can have fierce competition between broadcast agencies and broadcasters," he says.

Unless they come up with some new solutions, smaller sports that cannot bring in large audiences are going to face serious challenges
David Zeffman, Olswang

"An open tender also allows you to evaluate what interest there is out there in the market.

"You evaluate the offers, and ask the bidders what they can offer as added value. You can also go back to the main bidders and ask them to increase their offers."

Increasingly rights holders are also looking to segment their sales into packages for different global geographical marketplaces.

However, whereas as previously mobile and internet rights may have been separated off from the TV rights - as is the case with the Premier League - these are increasingly being all bundled together into one "platform neutral" package.

And while the top "gold standard" events - such as the Olympics, Formula One, and World Cup and Euro football championships - should weather the storm, the same cannot be said for others.

Broadcasting on internet

For smaller sports it may well be best to establish their own coverage on the internet rather than spend a lot of time, energy on money chasing TV deals that may never materialise.

David Zeffman, a partner at Olswang law firm, has advised Fifa in relation to the worldwide sale of media rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and has also worked for the Rugby Football Union on the sale of its various broadcasting rights.

"In the UK the majority of broadcasters rely on advertising or subscriptions, and revenues are declining for many reasons," he says.

BBC golf coverage in 1939
The days when sport was broadcast solely on TV are over

"Broadcasting budgets are tighter because of the decline in advertising. Broadcasters have also already spend a lot of money on their priority sports."

He said it was getting more difficult for minority sports to sell their rights as there were no large audiences to attract either advertising or huge numbers of subscribers.

"Minority sports could offer their own broadcast services via the internet," he warns.

"Unless they come up with some new solutions, smaller sports that cannot bring in large audiences are going to face serious challenges."

Even a seemingly mainstream sport such horse racing is currently entangled in negotiations about its future on terrestrial television.

"When we look at some of the bigger recent TV deals we might well say 'what recession?' But those deals have been achieved either due to competition between broadcasters or new ways of selling rights," says Mr Zeffman.

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