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Volume 20 No. 42
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European TV’s take on U.S. sports

Tough sledding to move beyond niche viewership

U.S. sports leagues still view international expansion as the holy grail of growing their business. But in Europe, at least, veteran media executives describe U.S. sports as little more than niche programming that still needs to find an audience in markets that are dominated by soccer and Formula One.

“Top American sports brands are not so big in Europe,” said Arnaud Simon, Eurosport France managing director and Eurosport Group television content director. “It’s not just because you are a famous brand that you attract a lot of ratings and a lot of people are watching you.”

There are some exceptions, of course. The NBA and NHL are popular in some parts of Europe because of the respective ice hockey and basketball cultures in those areas. But even an established basketball culture ­— like in Spain and Italy — doesn’t guarantee high ratings for NBA games because Europeans remain loyal to local clubs, rather than U.S.-based teams.

BT Sport includes the UFC in its rights mix.
“If you look at the NHL, for obvious reasons, it’s quite big in Scandinavia, Russia and some Eastern European countries because these are the countries where ice hockey is big,” Simon said. “But the NHL in Spain, France or Italy is just a brand that you have seen in American movies, to exaggerate a little bit, because they don’t watch ice hockey at all.”

Even as niche players, U.S. sports leagues are finding many suitors for their rights, as European sports networks look for live programming to fill their schedules.

In Germany, for example, network Sport1 benefited from the shuttering of ESPN America, which went dark in July about a year after parent company ESPN failed to retain rights to the English Premier League. Sport1 acquired several sports rights from ESPN America, including NCAA football and basketball for three seasons through 2016, IndyCar through 2015, and Major League Soccer starting with the 2014 season. It also gained additional NFL and NBA programming. Like other European networks, Sport1 would not disclose financial terms of its rights deals.

With these new rights, Sport1 US launched in August as a dedicated U.S. sports channel, complete with live rights and shoulder programming such as NBA TV’s “NBA Action,” the NFL Network’s “NFL Game Day” and HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” among others. While viewership numbers and the fan base of U.S. sports in Germany are small compared with soccer or F1, Sport1 anticipates that viewership will grow.

“The acquisition of the ESPN rights was a very important step to establish Sport1 US,” said Olaf Schröder, chief editor and program director at Sport1. “Our goal was to further stock up these packages to ensure an attractive program lineup for an independent U.S. sports channel.”

Pan-European sports network Eurosport is using a different strategy with U.S. sports. Rather than setting up a separate channel, it weaves U.S. sports into its programming mix. Still, the channel’s executives acknowledge the obstacles U.S. sports leagues encounter in Europe.

European media executives believe that the success of U.S. sports in Europe depends on the networks’ ability to attract casual fans. Time zones present a significant hurdle for U.S. leagues looking to international markets. Live game coverage for most U.S. leagues often starts after midnight, which makes it difficult to attract viewers and advertisers.

Europe’s soccer-dominated culture also is proving to be a tough nut to crack. European sports fans are conditioned to watching matches that have a continuous flow without commercial interruptions. That’s a sharp contrast to the television coverage of U.S. sports leagues, flush with stoppages for timeouts and replay reviews.

“The hard-core sports fan, I absolutely can’t ignore them, but they will always be there for their sport,” said Simon Green, head of BT Sport. “If you want to grow a business, you have to appeal to that marginal sports fan.”

Still, U.S. sports are filling a worthwhile niche for European sports networks.

For BT Sport, which launched Aug. 1, the acquisition of U.S. sports rights has helped it establish credibility. But BT Sport focuses much of its resources on its Premier League broadcasts.

Green doesn’t rule out the possibility of BT Sport one day producing its own U.S. sports-related studio shows. For the time being, the company airs purely American game broadcasts and shoulder programming such as ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.”

“Of course it’s a niche audience against the mass popularity of a sport like football,” Green said. “There is a market out there for us to get these rights, and in the case of MLB, it rates relatively favorably against some of the other European soccer leagues, for example.”

Eurosport has opted against airing shoulder programming around U.S. sports, believing those shows aren’t popular enough to attract viewers. Eurosport holds rights to Big Ten college football, the Arena Football League and NFL “Monday Night Football” on British Eurosport. The channel reaches 130 million houses in 54 countries, and prides itself as being a “live” sports channel.

In Germany, Sport1’s Schröder believes that the increase of international players in U.S. leagues will help grow the fan base in Europe.

“Although it’s still a niche compared to the soccer or Formula One fan base, the U.S. sports fans in Germany, Austria and Switzerland form a big and very loyal community,” he said. “We anticipate the general U.S. sports community to get even bigger — especially due to the growing number of German athletes now competing in the major professional sports leagues in the U.S.”

HJ Mai is senior writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily Global.