Turner says it plans to use the rights it has acquired to soccer’s UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League as the foundation for a new stand-alone direct-to-consumer streaming platform as sports, already the most powerful programming on broadcast and cable TV, continues to move over-the-top.
The move follows last week’s announcement that Disney was moving up the launch of a new ESPN branded subscription streaming service. Twitter is streaming Major League baseball games and Amazon will be streaming Thursday night NFL games this season.
That means more competition for traditional TV, which counts on sports and news to generate live views as people increasingly watch scripted and non-scripted programming on demand.
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With ad revenue flat and the number of pay-TV subscribers eroding, direct to consumers subscription products are looking more and more attractive to TV companies.
Turner, which is spending a reported $60 million a year on the soccer rights, will air games on its TNT, TBS and truTV cable channels. Its Bleacher Report online sports service will also carry soccer content and will be a portal for fans looking to watch the games that aren’t on traditional TV.
The new service is scheduled to launch next year. Turner has yet to name it or announce how much it will cost subscribers. The service is also expected to carry content from other sports, though Turner didn’t specify which sports those might be.
The games will be ad supported, although because there are few breaks in a soccer match, the ad load is usually much lighter than in sports like football or basketball.
David Levy, president of Turner, noted that the TV world is changing at a very rapid pace, with digital distribution disrupting traditional TV watching.
“This particular deal give[s] us the opportunity to get a strong foundation for a new product we’re going to launch, a new destination and a new platform,” Levy said. “This is where sports rights are going. There’s just not enough opportunity for everything to be on every channel.”
Of the 340 matches UEFA schedules in a year, 60 or so are likely to fit on Turner’s TV networks. The OTT product, combined with Turner’s TV networks “will enable fan[s] to watch wherever and whenever they want,” said Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels.
He added that the games shown on OTT should have sizable audiences. “We believe that base that follows world football is going to follow it wherever it might be.”
Daniels said Turner planned to build a unique consumer experience for the OTT production.
Turner is part of Time Warner, which is being acquired by AT&T. Levy said AT&T was not a factor in the deal, but that if the acquisition is consummated, AT&T could help, particularly in the mobile area. “We’ll certainly have talks with our new owners about how this could be amplified even further,” Levy said.
The Turner executives said they see evidence that after years of promise, soccer is poised to be the next big television sport, particularly among the millennials TV and ad executives want to reach.
Levy said UEFA admired Turner’s production of the NBA and NCAA basketball and thought it had the creative and marketing muscle to help grow the sport in the U.S. He said UEFA was also impressed with the way Bleacher Report reaches about a third of the men 18-34 in the U.S. monthly.
Six years ago, soccer didn’t make the top 10 sports on Bleacher Report in terms of pageviews or reader interest, Levy said. Now it’s in the top 5 “so we know it’s changing in terms of viewership habits and interest,” he added.
Turner already has some experience in the over-the-top arena with subscription movie service FilmStruck and its Boomerang product for kids. Turner also owns the streaming technology firm iStream Planet, which will play a role in the new product's infrastructure. “We have a pretty good head start on how we manage a product like this,” Daniels said.
With its multiplatform soccer deal, Turner is able to boost its cable networks, Bleacher Report, and launch a new streaming service.
“This product is untethered from our other brands. We bought this product and we’ll decide what’s the best use for this content across our portfolio of brand[s]. It gives us the flexibility to offer different content experiences on different platforms,” Levy said.
“We love the ecosystem we’re in and we have great content in that ecosystem,” he added. “This is building a new platform with different content.”
Turner’s Champions League coverage will include four live telecasts each week during the group stage, which runs from September through early December, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. All other matches will be available live via the new Turner subscription OTT service.
During the Knockout Phase, beginning in February, Turner will televise match at 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, with other matches on the OTT platform.
All semifinal matches and the Champions League final will be nationally televised on TBS or TNT.
UEFA Europa League matches will be available on the OTT platform until the final, which will be televised on TBS or TNT.
Turner will also televise the UEFA Super Cup on TNT or TBS.