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Volume 10 No. 25
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ARD Sport Dir Axel Balkausky Talks Sports Media Rights, Program Concept And Criticism

German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have always carried the top sporting events such as FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championships and Olympic Games on their portfolios of channels. With the emergence of private and pay-TV channels, public broadcasters could lose those top events, as they cannot compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars that private and pay-TV channels spend on sports rights. ARD Sports Dir AXEL BALKAUSKY recently talked to SBD Global about the battle for sports media rights, ARD's program concept and the criticism from the Basketball Bundesliga (BBL).

What are ARD’s criteria when it decides on sports media rights?
Axel Balkausky: When we decide on sports rights, we orient ourselves on the importance of the sport for our program. ARD offers a very diverse lineup of sports. We show up to 50 different sports in a given year. The quality of the individual sporting event is also very important. In addition, we always orient ourselves on the current market situation and follow ARD’s guidelines for its intermediate-term financial planning of its sports rights budget.

Q: As a public company, how high is ARD’s budget for the acquisition of sports rights? And how competitive are you with it?
Balkausky: I obviously can’t comment on our sports rights budget. Regarding competitiveness, I can say we are currently competitive in the majority of biddings for sports rights that are important to us. However, we don’t acquire rights at all costs.

Q: Will ARD be able to compete in the fight for top sporting events, such as FIFA World Cups, UEFA Euros, and Olympic Games, in the future?
Balkausky: That remains to be seen. However, I hope and think that perhaps often not only money plays a role but also the quality in which an event is broadcast on TV.

The two German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have signed a cooperation with basketball, handball and hockey, which is supposed to guarantee those sports more airtime. Was this necessary?
Balkausky: I wouldn’t describe it as a cooperation contract but more as a common project for better collaboration. It is important to invest in the collaboration with the three leagues because in the past the top games of those leagues were scheduled in such a manner that coverage on ARD and ZDF’s regular sports shows was not possible. This has changed this season and is certainly a positive development for ARD as well as the BBL, DEL (German Hockey League) and HBL (Handball Bundesliga).

Q: What do you say to the criticism from BBL President Thomas Braumann and CEO Jan Pommer, who have criticized the basketball coverage on the public broadcasters and said "it is all about the ratings for you?"
Balkausky: I can only say it isn’t all about the ratings for us because if that would be the case, sports, except football and certain winter sports, would not be included in our program. Evidence this is not the case is the variety of sports offered on ARD. However, audience interest also is a very important motive, after all a public program can’t happen to the exclusion of the broad public. In this regard I have to point out that especially the BBL has its problems when it comes to audience acceptance. For the current season, [German free-to-air TV] channel Kabel1 has acquired the live rights for the games of Bayern Munich Basketball -- and received with its live broadcasts sobering ratings, especially in the young demographic.

Is ARD’s sports coverage too focused on football and winter sports?
Balkausky: Football and winter sports each consume about one third of our sports program. The remaining third consists of Olympic sports, ball sports, the DTM (German Touring Car Championship) and boxing. I therefore think our coverage is very balanced. But the length of our coverage and shows takes into account the significance of the individual sport in the German public.

Q: What’s your opinion on the exploding prices for sports media rights? Will public broadcasters sooner or later only cover marginal sports as rights to top sports become unaffordable?
Balkausky: We will always try to have a broad range of A, B and C rights in our program. I also can’t currently see that there are exploding prices in the area of sports TV rights. Maybe in the pay-TV sector, whereas in free-to-air TV we have, in my opinion, reached the limit in regards to what private-TV channels are willing and able to pay. There have been only marginal increases and sometimes even reductions in the acquisition of very important rights for ARD in the past. This could be attributed to the negotiation skills of the people involved, but it also means that in many areas only moderate price increases occur because a financially feasible limit has been reached.

Balkausky says channel won't change concept and bid for more Bundesliga rights.