SIMON THOMAS: Global Ambitions

simon-thomasOur goal is to continue to bring all the passion of the FIC to sports fans around the world.
Simon Thomas, Executive Vice President
of Global Sports and Content Sales@Fox International Channels.
He’s a seasoned sports and media executive, spearheads the development of two of FIC’s highest growth units including the international FOX Sports channel portfolio and its complementary stake in global sports rights.
Thomas was previously CEO of TEAM Marketing, having successfully run TEAM’s TV Division for ten years. During this time he oversaw television licensing negotiations generating more than €11 billion in income for European football. Prior to TEAM, Thomas was responsible for the sales, production and broadcast of the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.How important is sports to the overall Fox International Channels offering?
Very important. FIC has a wide range of content across multiple genres, but sport, in particular live sport, and its ability to drive big audiences in an environment of time shifting and OTT, is essential.What are the major challenges in delivering sports content to such a wide range of individual markets?
There is no “one size fits all” standard for everyone. Combining our resources globally to realize synergies and compete more effectively across

across a broad range of markets has definite benefits. On the other hand we must balance that with the need to cater for local tastes, both in terms of actual sports and the way they are presented.

How do FICs sports channels define themselves and distinguish themselves from domestic competition?
Fox Sports is a mix of the best international and domestic content, high production values and engaging shows, all of which have helped us build a bond with the viewer. Our fans have a passion for sports – and they know that we do too. And as I said before, we’re global but we’ve got to compete as a domestic player – we don’t want to be an international channel with no local relevance. Fox Sports Eredivisie is an example. We have to win the hearts of Dutch football fans – our objective is to become the most loved sports brand in the Netherlands.

How, if at all, has your rights acquisition strategy developed over the years?
As FIC’s broadcast platform has grown, so has our capacity to take on bigger deals – and our ability to link them together across multiple markets. Our global deal for the Bundesliga rights, covering 80

countries, is an example. This couldn’t have happened a few years ago. Now there’s both a will to buy across multiple territories and a desire to exploit our massive marketing power.
We can activate a campaign across the world that builds the popularity of that sport’s property everywhere – it’s good for the rights owners and that’s good for us.How do you communicate with and build loyalty among viewers?
By offering them content that they want to watch, produced and packaged in a way that they like.
And of course, by extending that relationship beyond the traditional TV set and into second screen and other digital applications that enhance the overall experience and allow greater interaction. Especially in a relevant and customized way – that’s key.Of the sports content you screen, what have been the surprise hits?
Ha! That’s a good question.
Well, Women’s Golf has become very popular in Asia. There’s a big future in that.
And while it’s not exactly a surprise, I’d also say it’s been gratifying to see the way Bundesliga has been (gradually at first) embraced by international viewers.
In the markets we’re showing Bundesliga now, they’re starting to recognize a very high standard of exciting football, produced well, the stadiums are full with noisy fans, it all looks and sounds great.
Definitely a league, and brand, on the move.What plans do you have to launch sports channels in new markets?
We’re always looking for opportunities.
For instance, we see Africa as an exciting market. We recently bought Setanta there, and we’re in the process of re-branding that into Fox Sports and repositioning the channels.
In Europe, we’d like to replicate the Dutch League model in other countries, we can bring a huge depth of expertise to a league who wishes to find a solid and reliable partner to operate its own channels.

How important is it for a broadcaster to have a multi-media approach and offering?
Absolutely critical. A TV-only offering will become a dead-end street. A few years ago we all talked about “convergence” and how important it was but it didn’t really happen until recently. And now it’s having a big impact. Second screen is now the norm – as is consumption on mobile screens out of home. We have to become indispensable to our viewers – by increasing our connection to them. Fox Sports Play and Fox Sports Go are good examples, but just the start of our objective to drive growth by being relevant and available all the time, on whatever device.

What is FIC’s long term vision and objective?
Specifically for Fox Sports, our goal is to continue to bring all the passion of the brand to sports fans around the world, by growing our portfolio of premium rights, increasing our distribution universe and adding to our non-linear product offering. For FIC overall, our focus will continue to be on growing our entertainment, factual and sports portfolio, consolidating our offering primarily around the three key global brands: FOX, National Geographic Channel and FOX Sports, and launching non-linear services for each of these, such as FOX Play or FOX Sports Go. We are also steadily ramping up on original content to feed these channels. FIC already produces thousands of hours across genres, both at the global level and at the regional and local level, with an aim to continue to do more in the coming year.

How do you see the sports media market developing over the next 5 years or so?
Now that’s a topic you could speak for hours on by itself! Things are changing very quickly, where do you start? Technology of course – obviously digital offerings are already having a big impact. And on the rights side – high-end, must-have content continues to command ever increasing strategic premiums. In other words – it’s expensive and getting more so! But it only needs one of the big players to fail or pull out and things could change rapidly.
There are changes in the agency world – it’s a different model they’re

applying these days, and we’re also seeing some consolidation.
And perhaps a trend away from market by market deals to multiple territory acquisitions by bigger (but fewer) truly international players – of which the winners will be the ones that can most successfully harness the power inherent in their global scale while still delivering an offering to the viewer that’s highly personal and relevant. It won’t be enough just to acquire rights – you have to deliver on the promise.
I hope rights owners and the industry start to realize that soon – it’s not just about the money, you have to connect with viewers or you’ll disappear.We have seen UFC and other ‘new’ sports make a real impact of late. Are there other new properties out there likely to make a similar or bigger splash?
Yes MMA in general has become quite an important part of the portfolio – pay TV audiences tend to like fight sports – although the proliferation of brands and properties doesn’t help.
I think we’ll see a variety of sports properties stake their claim for a bigger slice of the pie – the best ones will be the ones that are stable – with full control of their rights.
If you combine that with savvy marketing and find the right long term partners to help deliver properly, you should do well.What new technologies do you identify as being central to enhancing the viewer experience. 4G / 3D/ second screen developments?
Communicating with viewers and users on their devices will become a source of competitive advantage – so the ability to identify, produce and send personalized content is central to this.
Can current levels of rights fees for key properties be sustained?
Sort of answered above!AND ABOUT SIMON THOMAS

Please tell us how you got into the business, your career development and you’re your own sports interests.
Working in content generally, and sports in particular, is great.

It becomes more than just a job. How did I get into it?

I left New Zealand back in 1990 to study in London, and I worked in investment banking after that.
I realized I didn’t really enjoy it all that much, so when a headhunter contacted me regarding a position with the Whitbread Round the World Race (I had a sailing background myself), I jumped very quickly!

That was my first job in sport. And one job led to another – and another. I think I’ve been lucky to work in a range of organizations.
I enjoy it all – the big properties (Olympics, Champions League), and the challenging ones that require more graft and creativity (creating a proper Paralympics broadcast for the first time, the UEFA Cup transformation to Europa League).

And now I’m working for a major broadcaster, I can draw elements of all that together, as well as see things from a slightly different perspective, which is useful – and fun.


What are the toughest and most interesting elements of your current role?
For Fox Sports to compete more effectively globally we need to integrate and coordinate things across our various regions more.But at the same time, the company has a strong entrepreneurial culture, which, to a large extent, is based around autonomy and letting our local teams spot the best opportunities and leverage their own local relationships.We want to do more of the first without losing the second. Tough – but interesting and rewarding. We’ve got 62 offices – that’s a lot! And a great asset. One thing – I find good people on the ground wherever I go.It’s a very positive can-do culture.

Who have been your mentors and / or inspired you in the business and beyond?
I was privileged to work closely with Juergen Lenz and Klaus Hempel during the formative years of the Champions League.
Their vision and drive was extraordinary. Team Marketing during the nineties was like a university of sports marketing, we were able to learn so much – and much of it was the direct influence of Juergen and Klaus.

People forget now when they see the sleek shiny successful Champions League machine that there was at first considerable resistance and many sceptics. But Klaus and Juergen created a winning blueprint – and executed it perfectly.
Something we were able to build on so it continues to set the standard.

There aren’t many sceptics now.
And since then, many people have tried to emulate it – which just confirms they got it right, and left quite a legacy.