My answer was straightforward. I was because I watch this stuff…I am a viewer.
Simon Green, the man responsible for running BT Sport, joined the company on 1st November as Director to produce the BT Sport channels.
If anybody had reason to suspect either the ambition or financial clout of BT Sport, the new boys on the UK sports broadcast block, any doubts vanished in an instant in early November last year when the company announced that it had acquired the rights to the UEFA Champions League and Europa League for three years from 2015.
At the stroke of a pen, BT Sport – and its Telco parent company – committed $1.4 billion to sweep the rights from under the feet of rivals Sky and, in doing so, moved the money markets. Sky had been UEFA’s Pay TV partner for the Champions League for so long that the BT deal came as a genuine shock to the system. Not only were the sums involved huge but its apparent audacity and swiftness of execution gave it the feel of a palace coup.
According to Simon Green, the man responsible for running BT Sport, the deal was “a shot in the arm not only for BT Sport but the wider BT organisation.”
It was also a deal which demonstrated how sports broadcasting has moved closer to centre of the commercial mainstream since it became recognised as a powerful tool for selling broadband packages
packages which have become the biggest game in town for Telcos now that the profit has been sucked out of the traditional telephony market.
“In the hour after the announcement the share prices of both BT and BskyB were off, (fell) but as the implications of the deal sank in our price began to rally. That is more or less what I had expected and I see it as an endorsement by the City of what we had set out to do”, said Green as he reflected on the ways in which the operation has developed since in launch only eight months ago.
Green is a television man through and through although, he says, he has yet to produce or direct a show.
He came into the business as an accountant at the then fledgling Sky where he made his mark among the heavyweight executives then struggling to establish the business in a market unused to paying for television services of any kind. His approach to the business is summed up in a story he tells of a Sky meeting in the early 1990s.
“The room was full of people who were incredibly experienced in the sector
“Although I was in the room I don’t think anybody expected me – the accountant – to get involved and when I did express an opinion everything fell quiet. Then I was told to shut up and, given my lack of experience of sports broadcasting , asked exactly why I thought I had any right to air my views.”
“My answer was straightforward. I was because I watch this stuff…
I am a viewer”, he said.The answer was certainly not lost on Sky’s head of sports who not only welcomed the intervention but proclaimed Green ‘the most important man in the room.’
Green has never lost his fascination for sports television or his ability to see things from the perspective of the viewers and that makes for a grounded approach in what can be a somewhat starry business.
He has put the viewer front and centre throughout a career which has seen him launch channels for Setanta and Fox in the USA and, more recently, Frank Warren’s Boxnation.It’s certainly an approach which has informed BT Sport’s rights acquisition programme and its on-air presentation which has challenged the norm in a number of ways.The Champions League deal will provide an opportunity for Green and his colleagues to build on the work which has been done to establish the operation over short space of time but, he says, there was no specific corporate focus on UEFA’s glittering prize when the station first went on air.“We didn’t have the Champions League as specific target but the fact is that we wanted to support our (English) premier league rights and to build a suite of sport channels you always have to look to the future and move forward.
You look at every set of rights which become available and consider whether there is a business case for their acquisition”, he said.
Sports content is no longer simply part of the entertainment business but a major weapon in the battle for control of the media and communications landscape through broadband.It’s a massive prize and winning will inevitably require significant investment. A number of organisations have risen up as challenger to Sky’s dominance in the UK only to be sent packing, largely because their content offering was not compelling enough.The reality is that if you don’t have top level rights the scale of your business is severely limited. Those who have gone into the market with aspirations to deliver a quality product but without the rights portfolio to support those aspirations have failed.
ITV digital, with its non-Premier League football – came close to putting the sport it covered out of business when folded while the demise of Setanta and ESPN proved that a small share of top rights isn’t enough.
Both were enticed into the marketplace on the back of European Union legislation which prevented Sky from buying up the entire Premier league football inventory and both got their fingers burned.
While Sky took the lions’ share of games and had first pick of the best games, their challengers effectively left with the crumbs from Sky’s table. And that simply wasn’t enough to persuade enough punters that the extra subscription was worth it.
In sports TV it’s always been that way. Sky itself was reported to be close to going under before its then enormous bid secured the rights to the nascent Premier League rights in a deal which changed both sports TV and football itself for ever.
Of course Green is confident that BT Sport has the necessary staying power and the deals with UEFA are a powerful statement of intent.At the time of launch Green was careful to describe BT Sport in terms of being a challenger brand and while the qualities which go along with being a successful challenger – innovation, striving and customer service – remain firmly in place you already get the feeling that the competition in the UK market is already close to being a battle of equals.
From its headquarters in the former International Broadcast Centre in London’s Olympic Park, BT Sport delivers two own-brand channels and operates another under the Setanta name. The channel launched with a portfolio designed to be competitive.
While Sky will continue to show far more Premier League matches, BT Sport now has a proportionately higher share of the best games from each round of matchdays.
Elsewhere there’s a raft of European football including Germany’s Bundesliga, WTA tennis, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, athletics and, as they say, much more.“For us at launch we wanted to achieve three things”, said Green.
“First of all we needed to be clean, which means delivering the best technical service and not falling off air”. Then he stresses that the new broadcaster had to “be seen to be immediately credible because BT did not have any kind of reputation as a sports broadcaster. That means the right content, the right facility and the right talent”.The third element then was a strong sense of responsibility to everybody involved. “That starts with the viewer but is also about our partners like the Premier League and Aviva Premiership, our talent, production companies, our staff and our shareholders”.“I am happy that we have been able to do that although there is certainly no room for complacency. By and large we are pleased with the feedback from viewers”.Part of establishing editorial credibility Green strives for involves making BT Sport a different experience. “We want to be slightly different, to get noticed and to build a brand in a short space of time”. Green said.
Beyond the live event output, BT Sport has placed significant weight on the quality of studio based programming. Green says this is a building block for the BT Sports brand. “If you think about the high quality TV brands we all know and love they are always reliable. You know that at any tie on any day you get quality output which never lets you down even though it may not be something you want to watch”, he said.
“I didn’t want to have people coming to BT sport on a Thursday evening and seeing a repeat of a French football match, deciding they don’t like that that and going away. If you come to BT Sport on Thursday evening you will find the live Clare Balding Show and even if they don’t stay with it they will go away appreciating that it is high quality broadcasting and that will lift their perception of what BT Sport is. TV sports brands live and die by the quality which raises its brand”.
So, UEFA aside, how does Green view progress since launch?
“The fact is that we are learning lessons on a daily basis and we are always looking to improve”, he said.
“Right now we are in the process of reviewing what we have done and what we have achieved and working on new approaches and innovations in the use of the studio and our presentation style ready for our second season”, he said.
“I am very pleased with the way that our European football output has been received. We have now re-negotiated and extended out agreement with the Bundesliga and one of the lessons we have learned
learned is that we want to embrace top European football. The fact that we have the Bundesliga, Serie A (Italy) and League 1 (France) as well as the Premier League means that being the home of top European club football is part of who we have become”.
That positioning will, of course, be bolstered when Champions League and Europa League matches become part of the staple BT Sport offering.
“Elsewhere I have been really pleased with our rugby coverage which has exceeded expectations. While I thought we would do better than ESPN (which had previously shared the Aviva Premiership rights with Sky) I didn’t expect that in the early part of the season we would be getting three times Sky’s ratings”.
“Rugby has filled out studios in new ways and our Rugby Tonight show has really pushed the production teams to use the space available to them to find new ways of entertaining the audience and explaining the finer points of the game”, he said.
Now, as the football season nears its conclusion and a summer dominated by the World Cup of free-to-air looms, Green anticipates that viewer numbers will drop somewhat.
“Every broadcaster with football and rugby rights would expect that and we are working to develop programming which supports the World Cup and shrinks the window where there is no football. We will have non World Cup matches featuring the Brazil and Germany national teams in the build-up to the tournament and we will be screening friendlies in the lead-up to the new club season”.
“We also have aspirations to pick up more tennis around Wimbledon”, he said.
Green, who at the time of writing was under pressure from his bosses to take his first holiday since joining the company, says he simply loves what he does because he, like his colleagues, remains a fan.
“I am excited by what we are doing as is everybody else here. There’s a fantastic enthusiasm around the place and as we prepare for our second season the feeling of anticipation is just like it was in the build-up to launch”, he said.
That excitement extended to the recent arrival (in March 2014) of MotoGP which had previously been shown by the BBC with many of the races buried beneath the red button.
“We are doing it differently in many ways including having (former model and actress) Mel Sykes as the main presenter. I already know it is going to work”, Green enthused.
According to Green, BT is in the sports TV business for the long haul even though he acknowledges that BT’s corporate culture can be very different to that prevalent in broadcasting.
“As a corporation BT thinks differently to the television industry. They think long term but in television long term is next weekend and short term is later today”, he said.
“But in terms of BT’s long term aspirations for BT Sport, I think what we are doing meets their expectations.
We are establishing ourselves and have the potential to deliver something really special”.