When confirmation came that the 32nd Olympiad would no longer take place in 2020, one of the first calls to action for Eurosport’s executive board was to haul back the fleet of commercial sea freights carrying operational equipment already en route to Tokyo.
The act, in itself, gives a sense of just how late in the day confirmation came, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government forced to put the Games on hold for a year due to public health concerns and travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Only four months stood between the time the decision was made public, on the evening of 24th March, and the Games opening ceremony, which was due to commence on 24th July. Typically, the showpiece reaches hundreds of millions of people in more than 200 territories worldwide, and this year’s edition, earmarked for Tokyo’s 68,000-capacity National Stadium, would have been no different.
Among the networks due to show coverage from Tokyo is Eurosport, which holds broadcast rights to the Olympics in 50 territories – all of Europe except Russia – as part of a €1.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) deal running until 2024. But with the Games on hold, other matters have taken precedence.
As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and the dearth of live sport that followed, Eurosport has lost more than 4,500 hours’ worth of programming originally scheduled for between March and August across its linear and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. Needless to say, efforts to sustain the pan-European media company’s business operations has required a calculated change.
In March, Eurosport’s parent company Discovery made the decision to allow staff to work from home as the US and several European countries saw dramatic spikes in coronavirus cases. Nevertheless, some have been required to commute to Eurosport’s production hubs in London and Paris to oversee the network’s channels and ensure they remain on the air.
Eurosport’s president Andrew Georgiou, pictured above, who joined the company from the Lagardère marketing agency in June 2019, says that the decision to enable the vast majority of staff to work remotely was taken, first and foremost, to protect the wellbeing of some 11,000 global Discovery employees.
“The Covid situation obviously came on really suddenly and affected different rights holders in different ways and at different rates,” Georgiou explains. “Our first reflex as a business was certainly around protecting people. The second challenge was maintaining business continuity because, at the same time as sending people home, we needed people in the office to operate two channels in 74 markets around the world.
“Doing that, and without the live content that had disappeared, was a business-operation priority that we had to make work. In markets like Paris, where you had to have paperwork to travel in case you got stopped, that was a challenge.”
Pat Cash comments for Eurosport during the 2019 French Open at Roland Garros
As circumstances would have it, the enforced operational shift reaffirmed Eurosport’s ability to produce content remotely, including features focusing on athletes who were forced to train at home during lockdown. For next summer’s Olympics, that shift could also inform the network’s editorial narrative, which will inevitably centre on the stories behind many of those athletes’ personal experiences.
“The great result of Covid for us was that it allowed us to start thinking outside of the box about programming ideas that were interesting to our viewers…and how we get our viewers better accustomed to the type of viewing experience we’re going to expect moving forward, including during the Games,” says Georgiou.
“It will also help our own producers and commentary teams to the extent that they can start using it in the normal course of the business. Quite frankly, some of our own teams are going to have to get used to doing things differently and this Covid situation has given them some pretty good practice for some of the challenges they are going to be facing.
“For example, how are you going to show intimacy or familiarity with an athlete when they are not in the same location as you? How do you do that virtually or through virtual reality and do it well? These are all challenges that we are going to re-train and re-educate ourselves around and we are going to use this year to make sure that, by the time we hit the Olympics, we’re going to be as good as we can be.”
Quite frankly, some of our own teams are going to have to get used to doing things differently
Andrew Georgiou, Eurosport’s president
During Discovery’s Q1 2020 earnings call in May, president and chief executive David Zaslav cited a “significant drop off” in viewership across the media company’s dedicated sports streaming platforms, including Eurosport Player and Golf TV. This trend is also identified by Georgiou, who says that fans naturally stopped “flicking the sports channels” in the absence of live content. Nevertheless, both Zaslav and Georgiou hail the role of Discovery’s home cooking and DIY portfolios in filling the void left by sport’s widespread postponements and cancellations.
As a result, Georgiou says that Eurosport has undergone “a big promotional effort…to get the audience back on the platform”, whereby the network has been able to lean on “over-performing channels” across the wider Discovery business to advertise Eurosport’s alternative and historical programming.
That has included, among other things, exclusive rights to virtual events, including the 21-day Zwift Tour for All cycling series, which saw Eurosport join forces with its sister Global Cycling Network (GCN) to pit professional and amateur cyclists against one other from their own living rooms.
Looking ahead, as live sports begin to return behind closed doors, Georgiou believes Eurosport has the capacity to take learnings from its lockdown experience several steps further – both by differentiating content across its linear channels and subscription-based, direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms, and by leveraging the associated advertising opportunities.
“In order to do that, we have to change our production approach,” he continues. “We can’t do the same things [on linear] as we do on digital, in order to create the personalisation, customisation, and content opportunities. We can’t do that, unless we change the way we produce.
"That is the real opportunity: to create engagement beyond video, to create a more lean-in, curated personalised experience where [the viewer] can actually design some of [their] own viewing, versus what you might get on a channel curated for you.
“In addition to that, you then have this idea of a remote production on top of that. You can do all of that – including giving the viewer more control over what they watch – not only by changing the way you produce, but also with remote production, which adds another layer of opportunity.”
At the beginning of March – and, as fate would have it, roughly a week before the coronavirus began to decimate the sporting calendar – Discovery announced the opening of a new €40 million (US$44.8 million) technology hub in the Dutch city of Hilversum. As well as storing and distributing live sports content, it also houses a private cloud for remote broadcast productions, including those created by its Eurosport channels.
The facility, which operates alongside Eurosport’s existing content hubs in London and Paris, exemplifies Discovery’s push into the DTC space over the past 18 months. It also forms part of the company’s long-term “efficiency focus” around the ways its content can be delivered to the consumer more effectively.
With a greater presence across the digital landscape in which its content is distributed, Eurosport now has more flexibility to take its DTC products to market on the company’s own terms, and to do so more quickly than it would otherwise be able to achieve via a traditional third-party carriage agreement.
Gordon Castle, Eurosport’s senior vice president for technology and operations, describes Discovery’s investment into the network’s technological transformation as the “single largest” in its history.
“The evolution of technology and how we can tell better stories and provide better insights continues,” Castle tells SportsPro. “One of the things that has accelerated here is the adoption and comfort of being able to produce things remotely, to pull in data analytics, and to use that information to enhance the story.
“We’re already taking steps to provide better access to content, so if you compare what we did [at PyeongChang] 2018 to what we were planning to do this year, we are bringing back a lot more streams and creating more localised content, without having to send as many people to the event.
“Accelerate forward to next year, we will be able to do more of that and, as it becomes more accepted and more encouraged, the benefit is that it creates more content in localised markets. That’s where the tension is – as the technology has allowed us to do things that we weren’t sure consumers would adopt, from a technology standpoint, we’re now pushing that even harder to create a more personalised consumer experience.”
How Eurosport and the wider Discovery business can monetise that transition raises a tantalising question: with the broadcasting industry adopting remote ahead of a forthcoming backlog of live events, what role will digital play in serving concurrent programming to overlapping audiences and advertisers?
“The big change, from my perspective, is the interest in adoption,” Castle continues. “That has really changed – we’re all now in our living rooms having [virtual] round table conversations, and that has become accepted as we take more things virtual. By coupling those things together with the fact that DTC and internal infrastructure continue to evolve, that really positions us for greater opportunities next year than we would have had this year.”
Paul Rehrig, general manager for Eurosport Digital, believes the resumption of sport during Q3 and Q4 this year will be a telling period, especially given the wealth of postponed events on the near horizon.
“We’re definitely playing in a world where there’s a rising tide of technology adoption and streaming products both in the pocket and the living room,” Rehrig says. “Everything we are doing in the digital world within Eurosport, I think, gets the benefit of that rising consumer adoption of streaming.
“The way we’re approaching it is, if the first phase of our activity was – with good quality of service and customer experience – to replicate the traditional television paradigm for streaming, I think we’re entering quickly into the second phase, and maybe Covid-19 has accelerated that.
“For us, we think that the bar has been raising in terms of consumer expectations but also around the business opportunity to differentiate [content]. We’re dealing with interactive devices that can not only deliver a video stream, but [additional] broadcast spaces.
“We think there’s a huge upside and opportunity, some of which we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. In terms of the innovation around the consumer experience within live sport, we can deliver that through mobile phones and, increasingly, connected TV experiences on the biggest screen in the home.”
Some staff have been required to travel to Eurosport's production suite in London during the Covid-19 lockdown
By way of an example, Rehrig points to the postponed French Open tennis tournament, which has been rescheduled to begin only a week after the climax to this year’s US Open, as an opportunity to test how far Eurosport can push the boundaries for its cross-platform productions.
During last year’s French Open, held between May and June, Eurosport saw a 31 per cent yearly increase in unique viewers across its Eurosport Player streaming platform and official app, while the US Open in August and September also attracted a marked increased on its linear and digital platforms across multiple territories.
“Grand Slam tennis is a case study for the beginnings of some of the things we’re thinking of doing,” Rehrig continues. “The digital product, overall, is in place for comprehensiveness of access to all Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Regardless of who you want to follow and who you want to watch, the digital platform already has the shelf space to merchandise simultaneous live action.
“What we’re excited about is the opportunity to produce that uniquely, rather than think about our broadcast of a tennis match through the lens of a traditional linear television network where there’s ad breaks during suspensions in the action.
“We think there’s an opportunity in the digital platforms to deliver an enhanced experience for viewers who are choosing to watch on a more digital experience that has more continuity, with more room for commentary, graphics and analysis within those ad breaks. That’s a complete reimagining of how we produce tennis events.”
As adoption of streaming platforms grows, Rehrig believes brands will have greater reason to invest in Eurosport’s digital platforms, especially now that the network is seeking to serve localised, personalised video content to “25-30 million monthly users across web and mobile”.
Mike Rich, Eurosport’s head of sports marketing solutions, leads a 200-strong team within the company’s ad sales business, and also works more broadly across the Discovery group to align its sports clients to the group’s wider portfolio of entertainment channels and platforms.
The big change is the interest in adoption of virtual technologies that position us for greater opportunities next year than we would have had this year
Gordon Castle, Eurosport’s senior vice president for technology and operations
“The postponement has been a frustration but there is, absolutely, a level of pent-up anticipation within the brand marketing community,” he says. “If you think about the fact that sport, from an advertiser’s perspective, is one of the last bastions of aggregated audiences across multiple markets, then the Olympics sits front and centre as one of the most powerful sports properties.
“Clearly, the global advertising industry has been heavily impacted by Covid-19. We’ve been on a journey that is focused on making sure that we fully understand what it is that our brand partners want to achieve and being set up to be able to deliver that. The majority of our major brand partners are looking to deliver engagement with passionate sports fans and to make investments in terms of understanding how we can engage with those sports fans.
“Whether that’s within a linear level, a social level, or a digital streaming level, we’re making those investments to be able to deliver a product so that our audiences can engage with it most effectively and most of the brands that I talk to, they understand that, when they advertise through sport, it is something very different to traditional advertising.”
Despite projected advertising losses across the broadcast industry due to the dearth of live sport, Rich says there are already signs that brand confidence is beginning to pick up. He notes how Eurosport is taking on “new business wins” within areas like esports, food and beverage, logistics, automotive, and also tourism.
“The opportunity for us, during this downturn, has been to realign our internal structure to be able to effectively deliver those solutions,” he expands. “We have a very high retention rate with those customers and we work hard to maintain our relationships so that we’re ready to go back to market when they’re ready to go back to market.
“There’s some really interesting green shoots that we’re starting to see and we’ve closed a few new deals within the last couple of weeks within the logistic sector, in the automotive sector, and in particular the travel and tourism sector, which is a really important one for us, and has been hit really hard.
“It is really interesting to see their appetite to work with us to build out communications programmes towards the end of Q3 and Q4 when we go back live, and to start building on those sports tourism messages with those engaged fans, when consumer appetite and consumer confidence starts to come back.”
Eurosport is adapting opportunities for brands now that Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 are being held months apart
While the coronavirus outbreak in northern China came to the public’s attention much earlier, the suspension of several major sports events in March – including the 2019/20 National Basketball Association (NBA) season and the start of this year’s Formula One world championship – served as a catalyst for the broader industry to halt its operations.
Discovery was quick to state its position following the Olympic Games’ postponement, choosing to withdraw its fiscal outlook for 2020. In doing so, the company will shift revenues and expenses related to its Olympic broadcasts to its fiscal outlook for 2021. In May, Discovery’s Zaslav confirmed that the company would also defer its rights payments for suspended sporting events, including the Olympics, under clauses covered by force majeure.
Furthermore, Zaslav said that the fact that Tokyo 2020 will finish only six months before the Beijing 2022 winter Olympics begin the following February will offer Discovery’s advertisers an opportunity to combine their spend and build consumer loyalty between events.
Georgiou echoes that message, saying that the postponement “gives a realistic opportunity for brands to maintain the momentum out of Tokyo into Beijing in a meaningful way”, by telling their story over a longer period of time.
“Every one of our platforms does a different role for a brand, and we’re unique because we have free-to-air channels where we can give brands real scale and audience reach. Eurosport can give them real breadth across Europe,” he says.
“The proximity of Beijing to the summer Games – while they used to be close together, they haven’t been for a long time – from a sponsor and brand perspective, I think there is a really cool way for a brand to extend their relationship between one Games and the next a bit more efficiently than they would over a two-year break.
“The biggest priority is how to provide the viewer with the same level of information and experience, and make them feel like they are still at the event, whether by doing something remotely or by doing something on-site. That’s the biggest challenge that we’re focused on.”