Media Rights, Soccer, Europe, Global

Sam Carp | Will the Premier League’s streaming service really be a ‘Netflix-style’ product?

English soccer’s top flight sounds ready to launch its own OTT platform, but Sam Carp asks if it’s right to be comparing a service built around live games to a product famous for its on-demand original programming.

by Sam Carp
Sam Carp | Will the Premier League’s streaming service really be a ‘Netflix-style’ product?

Few people – let alone this Crystal Palace supporter – could have predicted that Simon Jordan might one day become a soothsayer for the soccer industry, but here we are.

It was almost a year ago to the day that the outspoken former Premier League club chairman, who made his fortune in the mobile phone industry before famously spending it all on the South London club he grew up supporting, took to TalkSport to declare that English soccer’s top flight should become “a Netflix version of football”. By becoming its own broadcaster, he argued, the Premier League would “dwarf the revenues it currently gets” from the likes of Sky and BT domestically, and indeed from its other broadcast partners around the world.

For those unfamiliar with the UK radio station, TalkSport has become something of a mouthpiece for the curious rantings and ravings of former players, managers and owners, but for many, in this case, Jordan had a point. His suggestion was met with no shortage of support on social media, where punters claimed they would cancel their subscription to Sky or BT in a heartbeat were such a service to become available.

It seemed there was substance to Jordan’s idea, too. A short time after his TalkSport appearance reports surfaced that the Premier League had given serious thought to piloting its own over-the-top (OTT) platform in Singapore, only to later shelve the plan in favour of sticking with Singtel, the league’s broadcaster in the country.

But Jordan’s prophecy came one step closer to fulfilment over the weekend, when it emerged that the Premier League is developing plans for its own streaming service - already creatively christened ‘Premflix’ in some quarters, but which for the purposes of this column shall be known as ‘PL+’. Chief executive Richard Masters told members of the press that the organisation has “invested a lot of time and resources” beefing up its ability to sell live games direct to the consumer, adding that the competition “will be ready” to launch an OTT platform should the opportunity present itself.

The revelation has already prompted some to forecast that the league could stand to make as much as UK£24 billion annually based on the assumption that 200 million people sign up to PL+ - although it would likely take several years for the league to accrue that many subscribers, with all the associated costs of building out the necessary infrastructure for such a platform.

It remains unclear precisely when and where PL+ will be made available; Masters’ admission that the Premier League will adopt “a mix of direct-to-consumer and media rights sales” would suggest it could be some time before we see it in some of the competition’s most lucrative broadcast markets. But the various early attempts to make sense of what it might look like have been interesting to track.

There is often a temptation to liken a new product that doesn’t yet exist to something that is already tangible and familiar to the wider public. Even a quick Google search today will tell you that the Indian government is in the process of building its own ‘WhatsApp-like’ chat app, while Amazon has recently set up an ‘Uber-like’ delivery service in Australia. In the case of PL+ the popular choice has been to describe it as a ‘Netflix-style’ offering.

It is worth considering, though, whether PL+ would really be anything like Netflix at all. This industry in particular has long had an obsession with replicating the subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platform that has been credited with revolutionising the way people watch things. As SportsPro’s Michael Long noted some time ago, however, the term ‘Netflix of sports’ is a nebulous phrase, an overly simplified concept which seems to have prevailed over any attempts to assign it a clear definition.

In this instance the comparison feels misplaced. PL+ will deliver content direct to consumers over the internet in return for a monthly subscription in the same way that Netflix does, but the reason people will sign up to the Premier League’s streaming service will be intrinsically different.

People are drawn to Netflix for the catalogue of films, documentaries and original programming it spends billions of dollars creating each year, the combination of which saw the service end 2019 with 167 million subscribers worldwide. The platform has thrived on a culture of binge-watching, one where its subscribers visit the platform at a time that suits them – whether it be during their commute or on a lazy day sheltering from Storm Ciara - and play one episode of their favourite series after another, rather than feel restricted to the confines of a television schedule.

The Premier League is developing plans for its own streaming service

The same will not be true for PL+, to which the majority of people will tune in at the same time, when games are happening. The platform will attract subscribers for its live content, something which Netflix has never professed to be in the business of because live content isn’t something you can binge at any time of day. Fans of English soccer haven’t welcomed Masters’ comments because there is suddenly going to be a new platform offering round-the-clock news and coverage; they are intrigued because the proverbial carrot being dangled in front of them is a scenario where they will be paying less to watch more live games.

That in itself could present the Premier League with a different kind of challenge, to invest in establishing an offering that convinces fans to visit the platform with the same regularity they do other SVOD platforms like Netflix. English soccer’s top flight could yet invest in creating more original programming using its vast library of archive footage, but its clubs too now offer their own highlights packages and other historical content, while fans can also now easily get their soccer fix via third-party streaming platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Exactly how the league plans to overcome that is probably a question to eventually be answered in an official press release.

Until then it feels more appropriate to liken PL+ to other rights holder-owned OTT products such as the NBA’s League Pass and the NFL’s Game Pass, platforms that have also built their offering around the very thing that has made their competitions so valuable in the first place. If anything, a Premier League streaming service will be similar to Netflix in delivery only. In terms of style and selling point, we should expect it to be quite different.