Sportel: Producers get a sporting chance – With expanding broadcast boundaries, sports producers find the rulebook is changing but the field remains challenging

Running from September 21st to the 24th, the eighth annual sportel market in Monaco promises participants more contact with sports and broadcasting companies around the world; fittingly the symposium topic is With Digital Television and Pay Per View: Will Sport be...
September 1, 1997

Running from September 21st to the 24th, the eighth annual sportel market in Monaco promises participants more contact with sports and broadcasting companies around the world; fittingly the symposium topic is With Digital Television and Pay Per View: Will Sport be on the Winning Side?

Since 1990, sportel has been the venue where the tv and sports industry meet to exchange info, buy and sell rights, and conduct the business that drives this huge market. While the first market played host to only 22 exhibitors, this year they number in the hundreds. ‘The event has constantly grown,’ says David Tomatis, vp of sportel. ‘In the last three years, the annual development has been over 30%. This market will certainly break records as we expect a 60% increase in exhibiting space.’

sportel also boasts a new patron for the Golden Podium awards. The International Olympic Committee will endow the best slow-motion shots, the best sports tv image and the best opening montage with 50,000 ff in prize money.

The event also features a Sports Book Fair.

With specialty broadcasters multiplying like rabbits in North America in tandem with the frenzied expansion of terrestrial and satellite companies in Europe, sports television is an explosive market – and many distributors and producers are looking to cash in.

While the global market is expanding exponentially, broadcasters sign the cheques and are still in a position to be selective about programming. sportel is an opportunity for the decision makers of the sports programming world to eye the field and hash out the deals which will drive the market for the rest of the year.

By definition, sports broadcasters look first to big-ticket live events. Sky Sports, one of the companies spearheading the expansion of digital channels in the u.k., will broadcast over 14,000 hours of sports this year, about 35% of which will be live events for which they hold the rights. A slightly smaller number of slots are reserved for rebroadcast.

While rights to sporting events and league coverage are the mainstay, the fact that there’s a finite number of rights available in the marketplace means an increased demand for support and lifestyle programming to flesh out their schedules.

Even with the extra time available for broadcasters to fill, it remains a difficult market for independent producers and distributors to crack. Most broadcasters produce the majority of their own support programming, as do the major sports leagues, because of their distinct advantage over the independents in the field.

Rod Hay, a producer with Mirage Films in Australia, summarizes the advantage: ‘These companies not only have the money, but they have the rights to match, and the archive footage that becomes fundamental to most programs.’ The result is that producers often need to be aligned with a broadcaster just to get their foot in the door.

When they do turn to outside sources, broadcasters are still cautious about what they buy. Heather White, director of program sales at Fox Sports International, labels sports broadcasters ‘discerning’. ‘They aren’t desperate for programming,’ says White. ‘They’re looking for quality.’

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re willing to pay for it. The major events around which the market revolves tend to eat up budgets quickly. There is no shortage of examples of the astronomical price tags that accompany the rights to major events. BSkyB paid us$60 million for the rights to the Rugby Union’s European Cup for five years. nbc paid over $3.5 billion for rights to the Olympics through 2008.

The amount of money left over for other types of programming once these events have been bankrolled is described by one international distributor as ‘pitiful’. For a temperature read on the range of fees being offered internationally, Roadhouse Production’s Rex Hunt Fishing Adventure sells for us$40,000 to $50,000 in its native Australia, while in Asia and the u.k. the half-hour fishing show distributed by Sportsworld Network reels in us$500 to $1,000 per episode.

James Romanovich, senior vp at Associated Television International, knows what producers face when trying to put their projects together. ‘There’s no money out there, yet every producer must find it in order to survive. Many do not, simply because they refuse to diversify.’ The fact that anything airs at all is testament to the fact that producers are adept at striking a balance between their own interests, and that of their sponsors or broadcaster.

As discouraging as the facts might sound, there is still room for companies looking to take advantage of the huge potential for growth and long-term success in the area. Hector Figueroa, chairman of Puerto Rico-based Sport International, has turned down offers to do other types of programming to concentrate solely on sports.

With satellite broadcast becoming a standard in most of the world, Figueroa has seen demand for his product boom. His titles are now in 30 markets, from America to Asia and the Middle East, and his company has expanded to include two pay-per-view services.

‘If I had a billion dollars,’ says Figueroa, ‘I would invest it in programming, not delivery systems,’ as the demand for quality programming is one of the few constants in the field. Figueroa sees sports as ‘the international language,’ one which speaks to every member of the family, crosses language and cultural barriers and has lasting appeal.

There are many examples of sports and lifestyle programming enjoying both longevity and popularity. Motoring ’97 produced by Bradford JAJ Productions in Toronto, has aired on Canada’s tsn (The Sports Network) for more than 10 years. Every episode of Melbourne-based Roadhouse’s Rex Hunt Fishing Adventure has won its national ratings timeslot on Channel 7 Australia.

Producers who can boast success stories have usually found a way to tailor their projects to strict network parameters. There’s a need for a volume of quality programming at a relatively low price. With international broadcasters offering license fees averaging between us$500 and $2,000 per hour, producers have to exploit as many windows as possible. However, domestic broadcasters, who represent the major source of a producer’s income, are also after the profit foreign markets represent.

That creates a difficult balance for the producer. Producer/distributor Alistair Gosling, director of X-Dream in the u.k., says that he has shied away from working with broadcasters in the u.s. because they want too many rights, and don’t offer enough compensation.

Besides requiring considerable finesse in rights negotiation, content savvy producers must be able to deliver product inexpensively.

Garfield Kennedy, head of the Garfield Kennedy Company in Glasgow, Scotland, has had success with a curling series called Roarin’ Game for bbc Scotland. Kennedy admits ‘the big boys are hard to beat,’ so he has to approach projects with different expectations.

While it might be impossible for a small producer to out-spend a large broadcaster like the bbc, they can sometimes out-maneuver them creatively. In many cases they’re in a better position to test the waters and generate feedback – both of which are important for a type of programming which relies heavily on keeping the viewer continually entertained. His program fills a niche the bbc recognized, but didn’t exploit very well themselves.

Instead of simply covering the matches, Kennedy finetuned his show for the afficionados, even deriving the title from the sport’s local jargon, a monicker inspired by the sound of a curling stone skimming across the frozen lochs of Scotland.

Market growth indicates that support programming will play a bigger role as rights for major events are swallowed up. As producers look to supply this demand for new shows, isolating and laying claim to the lucrative niches presents more challenges. In a market which evolves rapidly, it’s difficult to judge what will and will not sell.

Current trends head towards extreme sports, fitness and adventure-based travel programming with a long shelf life. Larger players like Sky Sports and espn with multiple channels tend towards series, which provide programming stability from week to week. Single channel players like tsn prefer one-offs which can be easily tailored to fit around live events and don’t require a long-term commitment.

The common chord seems to be that broadcasters are looking for programming which will complement and diversify their existing schedule, and broaden viewer demographics.

The supply-side economics are an extreme sport in themselves, however, as Romanovich points out, success comes down to how hungry companies are. ‘Ultimately, the hungry will survive. The starving will excel.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.