Manchester United is negotiating a $20 million deal for a shirt sleeve sponsor. The suitor is Tinder, the dating app. Anyone who follows the frenzy that is the transfer window in European soccer will acknowledge that this is a match made in heaven. See player, swipe right, and before you know it, he is kissing your crest.
In the same week, the Brazilian Neymar moved from Barcelona to Paris-St Germain for a fee of $330 million. The world game appears still to be wallowing in money. So are the major American sports.
So, allowing for scale, are ‘s principal sports. The AFL celebrates each new and richer TV deal as if winning some sort of money superleague. Cricket went through a bit of rough and tumble in negotiations with its players, but at the end could boast that it had at least achieved one goal, to make cricketers the best paid team sportsmen and women in the country. The good times continue to (bank)roll.
But for how much longer? Columnist Shira Ovide posed that question this week in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. She noted that TV viewership had fallen in America’s NFL and English Premier League, also that younger Americans tuned out of last year’s Olympics broadcasts.
“The sports industry has become powerful because of its symbiosis with TV,” Ovide wrote. “The networks sign contracts for many years for the rights to televise sports. Those games are popular with viewers and advertisers. That means TV companies have the money to keep paying higher fees for sports.
“[But] this stream may have already peaked. For now, sports remain some of the most popular programming in the world, but there are signs of strain.”
A similar strain is detectable in . Audiences are moving on, from free-to-air TV, to pay TV, to streaming outlets, and the advertising money is going with them. Footy appears healthy enough for now, but Cricket faces a challenge when its rights come up for renegotiation next year, since one broadcaster is Channel Nine, which analysts say may find more cricket to be a net drain on its business, and the other is Channel Ten, which is in administration and unlikely to be in a position to bid.
The rivers of gold may turn to sludge, drained by cowboys upstream, as in the Murray Darling. We in print media are here to say that it happens. For now, sport has two guarantees. One is ‘s still tight anti-siphoning legislation. The other is that televised sport works best live, so is not especially suited to Stan or Netflix, for instance.
But looming in the distance are the techno titans, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon. Ovide says US sports are licking their lips in anticipation that they will deliver billions of viewers one way, dollars the other. Some have dabbled; Youtube in the IPL, for instance.
But not so fast, says Ovide. The bottom line is that they don’t need sport as TV does. They have vast audiences already, for nothing. At best, says Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, they might share revenue from advertising during sports programs, but pay nothing up front, as broadcasters do by the billions now, and on which sport depends. They might stream select events, but not whole competitions. They might not do business at all.
“Those upfront fees from TV have been the lifeblood of sports leagues for decades,” writes Ovide, “and losing them could mean real danger to the financial foundation of the sports industrial complex.”
n sport sees no imminent threat. Here’s CA’s Ben Armafio on Friday: “We are keenly tracking the major telco and tech companies’ forays in this space but we are very confident that for the near future FTA and subscription TV will remain the dominant platforms for sports viewing.” And the AFL, via a spokesman: “As the future of broadcasting continues to evolve, we remain confident that the strength of interest in the game, our clubs and our players can continue to drive a strong financial outcome for all our key stakeholders.”
So, they’re alert for sand, but not putting their heads in it.
Time was when certain TV moguls in this country might have continued to underwrite sport on TV forever because they liked it and because it was sport, ‘s beloved.
In this, there were echoes of an interview The Independent did 20 years ago with Newcastle United fans. One woman waxed poetically about the dreamy delights of the Frenchman David Ginola. But would she kiss Peter Beardsley, she was asked. “Yes,” she replied, “out of respect.”