The Premier League’s lucrative auction of its broadcast rights continued yesterday when News International was awarded the mobile and online near-live clip rights for all 380 fixtures for three years, starting from the 2013-14 season.
The move is an intriguing one from the Rupert Murdoch-backed company and appears to suggest that it believes Premier League football can do for newspaper subscriptions what it did for the take up of Sky television in the early 1990s.
The mobile and online packages had previously been sold separately, but successful bidders have struggled to market and monetise the rights effectively, leading to the suggestion that they simply aren’t profitable as a standalone product.
Premier League online struggles
Virgin Media won the online rights in 2007 and hosted them on its now-defunct sports portal before they were wrested away by Yahoo Eurosport in 2010. Both created an embedded player for other websites, including several newspapers, to syndicate, but the value of the rights seemed questionable.
Highlights could not be published until the Monday, by which point most people interested in viewing the goals would have seen them live or on Match of the Day. Capturing an audience has been made even more difficult by the fact that since 2010, Match of the Day 2 has been available on the BBC iPlayer from the Tuesday morning and advertised on the more popular BBC Sport website.
Holders of the mobile rights have preferred the subscription model. Sky Sports launched the Football 24-7 service before smartphones and the mobile Internet became widely adopted and ESPN released its own smartphone application when it won the rights in 2010. However ESPN Goals failed to achieve enough subscribers and became a free app in time for the 2011-2012 season.
The Premier League appears to have recognised these difficulties by consolidating the two packages into one portfolio in an attempt to maximise their value and make them more attractive to potential buyers, just as the FA has sold FA Cup and England International rights together.
News International has evidently not been dissuaded by the lack of obvious success achieved by previous rights holders, not least because it doesn’t plan to make money off them directly.
The publisher has already said that it will not charge subscribers to its newspapers for access to the highlights and will instead integrate them into its existing web, tablet and smartphone applications for The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun.
The Times is currently the only major national newspaper to operate behind a paywall, a decision that has naturally decreased its online readership and the advertising revenue it can generate. Just as the music and movie industries have found, the print media is struggling to convince users to pay for content when so much is available for free on the Internet.
Mobile: The saviour of print?
To compete with free, you must offer a service better than free and The Times distinguishes itself from its free competitors by stressing the quality of its journalism, offering a well-designed website and access to its mobile applications. It also offers tickets, discounts and other exclusives though its Times+ scheme.
In this context, News International’s purchase of Premier League rights makes more sense. Exclusive access to highlights would not only add value to the subscription but improve the product.
Commuters on a Monday morning reading The Game supplement on their way to work would also be able to watch the action from the weekend as though they were reading the wizarding journal, The Daily Prophet, from the Harry Potter universe.
Mobile has long been touted as the saviour of print, and although the failure of News International’s tablet-only newspaper The Daily has slightly tempered the industry’s optimism, the theory iswell-founded. Mobile users are willing to pay for content through digital marketplaces so long as it is truly portable and offers something extra over standard browser-based services.
The Times is so convinced that it is even offering subsidised Google Nexus 7 tablets to those who take out a subscription, but it could be the prospect of Premier League football that clinches the deal for many. It might also be the only way that mobile and online rights have any value.