SBJ/June 19 - 25, 2006/This Weeks News

Wimbledon defies tradition with Webcasts

Wimbledon, for all its history, tradition and conservative commercial culture, is decidedly new age when it comes to digital media. When the main draw of the tournament commences next Monday, live matches for the first time will be available for purchase on the Internet and through cell phones.

And what kind of company did the 119-year-old event entrust for its first global Internet broadcast? A two-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit called MediaZone, which is run by a Ph.D. from China and to date has obtained rights to sports such as surfing, motocross and beach volleyball.

Not exactly in the tradition of strawberries and cream.

“Wimbledon clearly has had some incredible traditions, the charm and elegance … are unparalleled in sport,” said Todd McCormack, senior corporate vice president of IMG Media, which represents Wimbledon. “But to maintain that, you have to be doing creative things technologically that enhance that.”

Four years ago, the tournament began sending streaming video clips, and in 1999 it had text-messaging deals in place with cell providers. But live matches are the grail of digital media, and Wimbledon has effectively been working toward this point since it negotiated TV contracts with NBC and ESPN in 2002.

Those deals raised the specter of Internet and mobile broadcasts, but gave the companies blocking rights in the United States, McCormack said. Finally, about a month ago, he said, IMG reached a deal with ESPN and NBC that lifted those restrictions in exchange for giving them a cut of the subscription revenue. As part of the arrangement, NBC will promote the MediaZone product.

Wimbledon on the Web
Entire tournament: $24.95*
First-week day pass: $4.95
Second-week day pass: $9.95
* $19.95 if purchased before June 26
The Wimbledon online offering, despite its newness, will likely upset some fans as the subscription model differs from the ad-supported ventures now all over the Internet. Replicating the hugely popular “March Madness on Demand,” however, might not have meshed with the reserved culture of the All England Club, IMG’s McCormack said, nor does it represent standard industry practice for initial ventures.

But the new deal opened the floodgates in the rest of the world, said Jeff Lucas, the information technology director at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which owns and operates Wimbledon. Once the U.S. broadcasters were onboard, international ones were more apt to fall in line, he said.

“A few years ago, most broadcasters were wary about the Internet,” Lucas said. “As people have seen how the Internet has performed and the impact it has had, we have seen more and more broadcasters realize the thing is here to stay and embrace it.”

NBC Sports executive vice president Gary Zenkel agreed with that assessment, saying the Internet broadcast could drive more viewers to his company’s telecast.

An ESPN spokesman, Dave Nagle, however, said discussions were ongoing. But IMG Media executive Patrick McNerney countered that a deal had been reached, and in any event, ESPN would only have been able to block the match it was televising, not any of the others.

The Wimbledon content, which encompasses nine courts, will be available for $24.95 for the entire tournament, or $19.95 if purchased before the tournament starts. Day passes are also available for $4.95 each during the first week of the event, and $9.95 during the second. Users can access the packages at wimbledon.org/live.

There are still some Wimbledon TV licensees that are blocking the MediaZone broadcast in their markets, including ESPN Star, a joint venture between News Corp. and ESPN that televises sports in Asia. IMG said fewer than half of Wimbledon TV licensees were blocking.

One that certainly is not is the South African broadcaster SuperSport, which is owned by the same company, Naspers, that controls MediaZone. While MediaZone is only two years old, IMG has been working with Naspers for much longer. Several other companies bid for the Wimbledon business, but IMG chose MediaZone.

The Internet startup has operated quietly in a growing but unheralded business of distributing live coverage on the Internet of lower-tier sports. The company also carries lifestyle and cultural programming.

Michelle Wu, MediaZone chief executive, projects at least 100,000 subscribers for the online Wimbledon coverage. MediaZone does not forecast profitability until 2008, but certain individual events cover their costs, and the company claims about 500,000 paying customers.

“This is very interesting what they’ve done since Wimbledon is such a huge brand,” said Carlos Silva, president and chief operating officer of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based World Championship Sports Network, which similarly works within sports outside the established U.S. stick-and-ball leagues. “They’ve got some rights and are trying to create a destination. Things like this bode well for all of us trying to do major events on the Web.”

Within the tennis world, MediaZone has already dusted up a bit of controversy. The outfit said it had rights to sell the nine Masters Series men’s ATP tournaments, before backing off the boast after the commercial arm of the circuit protested.

In fact, Tennis Properties Limited, the Masters Series commercial unit, maintained it never had a deal with MediaZone and asked the company to take all Masters Series references off its site. Last week, MediaZone said it removed archived footage of two specific tournaments, Rome and Hamburg, and after acknowledging it had no current contract with TPL, then removed any other Masters Series references.

“TPL was having preliminary discussions with MediaZone,” said Mark Webster, TPL managing director. “As part of those discussions, MediaZone suggested a trial to show what they could do. TPL suggested Hamburg and Rome, as these were the next two ATP Masters Series events available. But we could not reach suitable terms, as they could not deliver technically, so we pulled out and decided to do our own thing.”

But MediaZone said it sold both events, insisting it had a signed deal with TPL to do so that expired June 1.

MediaZone also renamed its tennis portal Tennis on the Net after originally calling it The Tennis Channel. That name is already taken by a U.S. sports cable network (which, coincidentally, has the U.S. rights to the overseas Masters Series events).

Wu said The Tennis Channel contacted her recently, but about another matter, and she volunteered to change the portal name to maintain good relations within the industry. A Tennis Channel spokesman differed somewhat, saying the network’s lawyer called MediaZone several times about the matter, but the situation was resolved amicably.

Meanwhile, Wimbledon also cut deals with U.K. cellular operators Vodaphone and Orange for live matches, and may have another one soon to announce with an Australian carrier.

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