If you had the time or indeed the inclination to watch every screened football match from the top tier of all the major European leagues this season, you would need to cough up more money than ever. It is no longer as simple as lazily switching on Sky Sports and seeing what matches might be on.
With the arrival of Eleven Sports in the market, the avid fan is faced with the conundrum of paying more subscriptions or missing out on watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Spain’s top league sprang back into action last weekend, providing the first major test for Eleven Sports, the online streaming service which has exclusive rights to La Liga and Serie A. The channel, founded and owned by Leeds United’s majority shareholder, Andrea Radrizzani, offers subscriptions for £5.99 a month or £49.99 a year, and a free seven-day trial.
The company’s chief executive, Marc Watson, who won the Champions League rights for BT, has remained coy about subscription figures since it launched on 9 August but did say that the “vast majority” who take up the free trial are staying.
Watson was also keen to impress that while the demographic of the customer base for the streaming service is younger than he remembers from his time at BT, it was very simple and easy to use, with increasing provisions being made for those who prefer to watch on the TV than on their laptop.
Non-subscribers can get access to Sky Sports with a £33.99 monthly pass which renews automatically unless cancelled by the customer. Access includes the 126 live Premier League matches to which Sky has rights this season. Sky, though, has opted not to shell out the £18m required to retain the La Liga rights it held for two decades. As a new season offer, Sky Premier League and Sky Football are available for £18 a month for 18 months, on top of Sky’s basic monthly subscription.
BT Sport is set to increase its basic subscription price from September to £12 a month for broadband customers, for output including 42 Premier League games, despite losing the Serie A rights. Whichever way you cut it, watching all the top matches from Europe just got that bit more expensive.
“If I was a customer I’d be asking why I’m still paying the same and getting less European football,” Watson said, “but that’s for those companies to answer. It’s not up to us to aggregate our channels but I’d be open to the idea of working with Sky and BT in the future.”
Sky Sports and BT Sport would possibly argue that they offer more in the way of other sports. But pure football for the dedicated fan is how Eleven, which has 17m subscribers worldwide, sells itself. It is hungry for even more content and acquired the rights to the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, the Chinese Super League and Sweden’s Allsvenskan, and to Burnley’s Europa League qualifying game at Olympiakos on Thursday night.
Eleven’s launch event to the UK market was exclusive coverage of the US PGA Championship, which it streamed free on Facebook for the first two days as part of a push to lure custom. Like most new ventures there were teething problems. A “small minority” of golf fans, as Eleven termed them, missed Brooks Koepka sinking his winning putt when the feed went down at the crucial moment. The audience, particularly those not accustomed to watching sport online, were unforgiving.
“It affected a small number of customers but it was very frustrating,” Watson told the Guardian. “But with live TV inevitably you do get some issues. Since then nothing has gone wrong and we’ve shown a lot of live games. We had 18 live games over four days last weekend from Friday to Monday, which is more than any other broadcaster.”
Eleven might be breaking the longstanding duopoly Sky Sports and BT Sport have held over top‑level European football but Amazon entering the Premier League fray from 2019 is likely to be the real gamechanger.
For a long time the industry has been bracing itself for the entry into the market of the tech giants, known as the FAANG’s – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. But it was Amazon which made the first move, albeit a modest one, by securing one of the lesser Premier League rights packages from the most recent tender process.
The Premier League had set aside two three-year slots of 20 matches a season for purchase by online companies but neither reached its reserve price. They went back out to tender and Amazon decided to dip a toe in the water, acquiring rights for 10 games in December and a further 10 on Boxing Day.
“I think the big tech giants were nervous to overstretch themselves,” Simon Leaf, a sports lawyer for Mishcon de Reya, said. “We saw several years ago that BT were very acquisitive and now they seem to be in retreat with the loss of Italian football and NBA basketball. They’re on a bit of a losing streak and the tech giants have seen that.”
There are much-trumpeted reasons why increased competition in any marketplace is a good thing but in the immediate term it has led to more expense for the armchair football fan. “In the short term it’s bad news for the customer,” Leaf said. “Particularly with Amazon, if they want to watch Premier League football they’ll need a subscription. But if Amazon can make the model work and stream for free, in the long run it will work out better for the customer.”