More than most in the media business, Eurosport is closely studying NBCUniversal’s experience with the Summer Olympics in Rio. The global sports network controlled by Discovery won rights to broadcast the Olympics starting with the 2018 Winter Games. While there are carve-outs for public broadcasters like the BBC, which can show up to 100 hours in winter or 200 hours in summer, the Games will lift Eurosport to a new level of prominence.
NBC was widely criticized for tape-delaying key events, such as the Opening Ceremony, and packaging primetime coverage in a way many felt ran contrary to contemporary viewing trends. While streaming numbers soared—doubling the number of streams from the past two Olympic Games combined—the linear averages plummeted by double digits.
Peter Hutton, CEO of Eurosport, told U.S. reporters he was hesitant to judge NBCU, which he said had “led the world” in a style of feature-laden coverage that draws a broad swath of viewers, something Eurosport would emulate. And yet, “in an environment of social media, to believe you can hold back the story is really not achievable,” he said. “For us, the expectation is always going to be that every event will be live.” In 2018, he added, “every minute of every event” will be live, he said. “That’s what sports fans deserve.”
“It doesn’t mean there’s not a role for packaged programming and the sort of ‘creating heroes’ approach that NBC has led the world on. There’s a lot we can learn from that. But it has to sit next to a huge live offering that you make available to everybody.”
Hutton visited New York during Eurosport’s coverage of U.S. Open tennis. The tournament marked a milestone, he noted. The first day of the Open was the busiest day ever for the network’s stand-alone, direct-to-consumer service. Eurosport Player currently has just under 300,000 subscribers. The OTT service was relaunched in 2015 with the goal of reaching 1 million subscribers by 2017.
Often labeled “the ESPN of Europe,” Eurosport has a different set of advantages and challenges than its counterpart in Bristol. It has checked the OTT box, unlike ESPN, which says it will launch an offering by the end of this year. But also unlike ESPN—which achieved scale through deals for mass-audience sports like NFL and college football, Major League Baseball and the NBA—Eurosport addresses an innately fragmented audience. Its networks reach 228 million subscribers in 93 countries. Its rights deals are a patchwork of languages and customs specific to individual markets—sometimes just singular, niche events like ski jumping in Poland or speed skating in Norway.
“It almost does operate like an RSN in that you’ve got central content that can get broadcast everywhere, but you’ve also got local operations that can make local decisions about their local sport,” Hutton said. “Working that balance is a really nice problem.”
Localization means constantly scrutinizing viewership and programming across dozens of countries. Business in the U.K., France and Germany, Hutton conceded, is booming to a greater extent than it is in Italy and Spain.
Because it has avoided basing its success on retaining top-end rights, Eurosport has managed to stay out of the arms race that some Wall Street analysts believe will ultimately threaten traditional networks, notably ESPN. Asked about prospects that Eurosport could step up and bid on rights to, say, the Premier League to upgrade its patchwork of lower-tier soccer broadcasts, Hutton shrugged.
“It’s difficult to bid against a pay-TV platform selling straight to consumers,” he said. “You have to look at every opportunity and say, ‘Where’s your angle?’”
He continued, “Sports is a really dangerous business in that ego can take people into strange decisions. To keep that air of rationality and a genuine cost analysis of what you’re buying is the biggest challenge.”