As IMG’s live in-flight channel Sport 24 Channel celebrates its fourth anniversary, senior vice president Richard Wise, who manages the channel, reflects on what’s been achieved to date and considers possible future developments.
When Richard Wise describes Sports 24 as ‘the best sports channel in the world’ he’s not kidding.
And even a cursory glance at its programming portfolio suggests he has a point. What other channel can claim live English Premier League and Bundesliga soccer, UEFA Champions League the NFL and NBA, all the golf majors and tennis Slams and Formula One? Then there are the FIFA World Cup, UEFA’s Euros and, with Rio 2016 fast-approaching, the Olympic Games.
All you need to feast from the day’s special on this menu of the finest sport on the planet is a ticket issued by any one of 12 airlines which, between them, operate more than 325 aircraft currently equipped to screen live action from anywhere in the world to sports fans as they speed across continents and oceans at 35,000 feet.
This month Sport 24 marks its fourth anniversary; four years of steady growth and development which has seen the IMG-operated channel not only build its rights portfolio but expand the audience and develop a better understanding of what airlines and passengers want from a live, inflight sport service.
That’s helped them formulate a business model built on licence fees and commercial partnership which now feature a clutch of major international brands. Motor manufacturer Hyundai recently joined Rolex and software company Barracuda on the roster and Wise and his team are working to complete deals on three further category specific partnerships which will link brands not only to world sport’s mega-properties but to a unique inflight experience.
In an age when digital technology allows fans to access sport more or less whenever and wherever they want, aircraft had become the final frontier with the instruction to fasten safety belts in preparation for take-off signalling the onset of withdrawal symptoms.
Today that’s simply not the case. Super Bowl Sunday is one of the most important dates on the US calendar, a nationwide party that nobody wants to miss.
And last year, as up to 120 million Americans and millions more around the world the world tuned in to watch the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in Glendale, Arizona, being up in the clouds didn’t mean fans missed out on the action. For the first time Super Bowl was screened live on Sport 24 on ‘planes operated by Emirates, Lufthansa and a number of US airlines and it proved a huge success.
Post event research showed that up to 90 per cent of passengers on flights out of the US were watching the game.
Figures like that suggest that Sport 24 is an idea whose time has arrived and with a massive summer of sport featuring both the Olympic Games and Euro 2016 on the horizon, demand is likely to grow still further.
But beyond the confines of IMG, not everybody was always convinced of the merit of the concept.
“Back at the very beginning when we started discussing separating in-flight rights from TV rights people thought we mad,” Richard Wise said.
“That’s because we were thinking ahead of the technology curve, but now the technology has caught up.”
While IMG has made and delivered a range of magazine and highlights programmes for in-flight entertainment systems for many years, Sport 24 was launched only as technology developed sufficiently to hit the sweet spot which allowed aircraft to hoover-up data from satellites as they cruise at 500 mph or more high across the most remote places on earth.
Sport 24 is delivered to the world from IMG’s state-of-the-art facilities at Stockley Park in West London, a complex which has become the epi-centre of international sports media. This is the place where coverage of some of the most valuable properties is produced 24/7, 365 days a year as it starts its journey to audiences across the world.
It is a facility which reflects IMG’s status in sports media, a position which has been earned over the course of many years through continual investment and innovation to add value to the rights the company handles on behalf of most of the world’s leading sports organisations.
The strength of the Sport 24 offering lies in the marriage of IMG’s experience and relationships within sport and Panasonic’s technological capabilities which have created a unique opportunity for airlines to enhance their customer experience and presented a new set of welcome challenges for Wise and his team.
Naturally it is the blockbuster global events which have created the biggest impact among passengers and social media monitoring suggests that the availability of live sport makes the often tedious business of air travel a rather more pleasant experience.
Those events keep coming and continue to provide the backbone of Sport 24s programming. With a ready audience for globally sourced content this is one channel which can genuinely claim that it is ‘prime time all time.’
“We are growing every month with more airlines licensing the service and more content being becoming available,” Richard wise explained.
“As we are getting more and more eyeballs every month it becomes an even stronger proposition for commercial partners and we are now looking to conclude deals with three additional brands. We are looking at categories including banking insurance and hotels.”
In what is effectively a hybrid system, brands become partners of the channel, ensuring visibility across the entire programming range while retaining the ability to align themselves closely with particular types of content?
“The partners are not associated exclusively with any individual event but can be more closely associated with a sport when there is a fit. For example Rolex has a long association with tennis and naturally want to be visible around tennis events,” Wise said.
Last year they added the NBA and Champions League to a schedule which was already exceedingly rich and the issue increasingly facing Sport 24 hour programmers is how to keep all the people happy as much of the time as possible.
“The fact is that there are times, particularly over weekends, when there is just so much great sport being played around the world that, with a single channel, we are having to make tough choices about what to show. Should it be a crucial English Premier League game or one which might decide the outcome of the Bundesliga?”
The result is an on-going discussion about the potential of introducing a new ‘pop-up’ channel, which will enable more sport to be delivered and provide viewers with greater choice.
“We know that sport is the most-watched live content in-flight and the ‘pop-up will be an extension of what we are offering and add more value to the airlines by enhancing their customers’’ experience,” said Wise.
IMG is the only company which has a team of people dedicated to in-flight rights and content and who, says Wise, are just as likely to be spotted at aviation industry trade events as Sportel or other sports media gatherings. As result they’ve built significant expertise in the sector which is aligned to often longstanding relationships with the world’s major sports events and Federations who own the rights.
“Our relationship with rights owners is extremely important and they love what Sport 24 is doing. What we have achieved over the last four years is really just the tip of the ice berg and we have long-term plans for further development of the channel. We are in it for the long-haul,” he said.
The service is delivered using Panasonic Avionics technology which currently accounts for some 80 per cent of the market. A company spokesman explained that it worked by using its global satellite network to seamlessly deliver a broadband pipe to aircraft in any location.
Aircraft are fitted with a dome containing the necessary antennae and the system is hard-wired throughout the aircraft.
Panasonic currently supplies its hardware to 40 airlines, covering some 2,000 aircraft and deals with Airbus and Boeing mean that the systems are not being factory –fitted as well as retro-fitted into older aircraft.
Although Sport 24 is may only be four-years-old the company’s expertise in the sector dates back more than a decade and IMG says it is committed to sensibly and sustainably growing and developing the market.
“As the sector develops we think that our customer, the airlines will want greater customisation of content. That may be regional to reflect the different sporting appetites in, for examples, North Africa and Asia but right now there are certain restrictions in terms of bandwidth and cost,” Wise said.
“We are growing the business on the basis of our expertise and relationship with rights holders as well as our recently renewed and extended technology partnership with Panasonic and the airlines themselves. I guess the barriers to entry to this space are fairly high but we are aware that others may be looking at its potential and that keeps us on our toes. We are never complacent,” he said.
“The airline business is very discerning and they are always looking for a premium product and service and that’s why we are focused on enhancing the channel wherever we can
.”Along with Panasonic we have made a significant investment and we want to be able to deliver value to all parties. The rights to the sports events we screen are simply not available anywhere else because the rights holders trust us to present their sports in the best possible way. The combination of the best live sport delivered by the market leaders in rights and production and in technology is just unbeatable.
“When we first went live people were just delighted to see live pictures of sports events from their aircraft seat. But as time goes by they become more accustomed to the service and, consequently, more discerning and critical. It is up to us to make sure we continue meet and exceed their expectations and our access to the best technical facilities and, critically, the exclusive rights to the best sport on the planet, means we are perfectly positioned to do so.”