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Premier League rights: the path is being paved for Amazon

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It is now only a matter of time before the likes of Amazon and Facebook start turning up with their giant chequebooks to compete for the rights to the world’s top sports.

Not everyone is a tennis nut all year round, even though millions make the annual television pilgrimage to watch Wimbledon each summer. All that is about to change as Amazon has outbid Sky for the next five years of the ATP Tour from 2018 which means that just about every serious tennis game you would want to watch – apart from the four Grand Slams of Wimbledon, New York, Paris and Melbourne – will be controlled by the international shopping giant.

The sum of money involved in the tennis deal at around £50 million is relatively modest in the scale of television sports rights and there are particular circumstances. Sky is starting to be more selective about the rights it acquires and viewing figures were probably too low for the broadcaster to care too much about whether it lost – certainly not enough to match a £50 million bid.

The interesting thing is what it says about Amazon and its ambitions to become a serious sports broadcaster – or more precisely, a live streamer of sport. Twitter took its first steps into live sport – successfully – by buying rights to the 10 Thursday night American football games. Amazon has scooped up the Thursday AFL games bidding multiples of what Twitter could justify to itself.

Such deals are clearly going to be part of a future pattern – not so much if as when. We can rely on that because senior Amazon executives say so.

Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior vice president for business development told Recode, the technology and media website, that Amazon was “starting to bring live sports to our Prime members all over the world.”

Facebook is going down a similar route with deals for live basketball in the US and more ambitiously Champions League football – or soccer as they call it – in an agreement with Fox.

It is possible to argue that Amazon and Facebook have limited ambitions in this arena – just a few rights tending towards the minority end of the spectrum to add to the mix and generate a headline or two.

Given the financial firepower they have at their command that would be naïve. They’re smart and they won’t blunder in without testing the market. But you can assume it really is only a matter of time before they start showing up at the top sports rights tables and in the case of Amazon – seeking to drive its retail business in an ever-increasing number of sectors – there is the ability to bid sums that even pay TV broadcasters would find it difficult to match.

Bidding on the Premier League for the three years from 2019 begins soon. Last time round there was a 71 percent rise in value to £5.13 billion with Sky winning five packages and BT two.

The Premier League executive Richard Scudamore, mercifully conceded it was unlikely that seven different bidders would each win a different package but raised the prospect of more than two bidders holding live rights.

With BT pushing for more than two and Sky desperate to hang on to what it already has, proceedings could get really rough if one of the seven musical chairs was removed in the form of a knockout bid from Amazon. The ultimate nightmare for everyone but the Premier League which, as they admit, sees no limit to what many will see as their unbridled greed.

The big issue may turn out to be how exactly the Premier League interprets its “distribution criteria,” and whether live streaming would reach enough people for their financial needs.

The answer might be yes. At the moment you need a satellite, cable or BT subscription to receive the Premier League without going to the pub, and that excludes a lot of people for a variety of reasons, including economic ones.

As Ofcom made clear in its recent study on changing viewing habits, 63 per cent said they used BBC iPlayer regularly.

If the past Premier League record is any guide, if compromises have to be made it is the interests of the fans which will be sacrificed in the face of exciting three-way auctions involving new players with unlimited pockets. The winners, as usual, will be the League, the club owners and another place where there will increasingly be no ceiling – transfer fees and the wages of top players.
The losers, as always, will be the fans who will be asked for more and more to see the teams they support.


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