After BT deal news, ESPN discusses digital media opportunities
Tuesday (26 March) brought the news that BT is to expand its sports broadcasting interests with the acquisition of ESPN’s UK and Ireland TV channels business, primarily comprising the ESPN and ESPN America channels and their live sports rights portfolio, including the FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League, UEFA Europa League, and the German Bundesliga.
SVG’s initial story on this historic deal – which takes places mere months before the planned launch of the new BT Sport channels – can be read in full here. But with statements only touching on the likely post-deal future for ESPN as a brand on this side of the Atlantic, we invited ESPN’s Paul Melvin to elaborate on what happens next should the deal satisfy the standard regulatory approvals.
What are the immediate plans and priorities for ESPN’s digital media business in the UK and Ireland now that its TV channels business is to be sold?
We will be talking in further detail about our digital plans in the future. However, we operate ESPN Player, ESPN.co.uk, ESPNcricinfo, ESPNFC, ESPNscrum.com, ESPNF1 and now XGames.com, as well as numerous mobile services and apps. We will look to grow each of these and explore opportunities in other emerging media platforms.
Online, our audience in the UK set a new record in January, and over the past year ESPN.co.uk has grown to become a leading online sports property within the United Kingdom. Since 2011, the site has grown across the board as more users are spending more time and making more visits than ever before. It has grown its audience, and as that audience base has increased so has user loyalty – average monthly visits increased by +31% from 2011. In addition to news, stories, and scores attracting users to co.uk, the site is becoming a go-to for video as total video views have nearly doubled and the number of videos published has reached its highest total to date.
Mobile is an growth area and focus for the company – both in the UK and around the world, and we expect that to continue and grow. ESPNCricinfo, ESPNFC and ESPNF1 all had record setting years in mobile in 2012.
The deal terms state that BT will continue to operate ‘at least’ one ESPN-branded channel after the transaction is completed. This suggests that the ESPN name will continue to have resonance in the UK/Ireland market, but how do you think it will be developed as a brand in its own right in the future in the UK/Ireland – both within and outside the BT context?
ESPN will continue to own and operate our digital business including our suite of web sites, mobile services and apps, our broadband streaming service ESPN Player, as well as online sites ESPN.co.uk, ESPNcricinfo, ESPNFC, ESPNscrum.com, ESPNF1 and now XGames.com, and a suite of mobile services and apps. We will look to grow these businesses, and we will also continue our content syndication business, selling sports content to partners across the entire region.
As you mention, the ESPN brand will continue to have a presence on television screens across the UK and Ireland. The exact form that takes will be announced by BT as it gets closer to its channel launches. As noted, there will be at least one ESPN-branded channel that is expected to form part of the overall BT sport offering.
What of the future for ESPN Classic? It is not part of the deal but media reports suggest that it might cease transmission across Europe, the Middle East and Africa…
Separate from the agreement with BT in the UK, there is a proposal to wind down ESPN Classic across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, and the non-UK ESPN America channels in Europe. However, at this stage that is a proposal, and is subject to the appropriate review and consultation process – so there is not a definitive outcome.
What are the practical implications of the relocation of ESPN’s operation to BT Sport HQ in Stratford? What is the timescale for the move, how many staff are involved, and are there likely to be any redundancies as a result?
ESPN continue to own and operate our channels, unchanged, until the completion of the agreement (anticipated on or around July 31). Until that time, it is the same coverage, same content, same channels.
We do not discuss specific details of personnel matters. However, there will be opportunity for the employees that are associated with the ESPN and ESPN America channels operations in the UK and Ireland to have jobs at BT, working for a new and exciting entrant in the sports media sector. BT have made a big commitment to the sports and TV landscape in the UK and have also committed to look after all of the UK and Ireland channel staff transitioning as a part of this deal – which is reflective of their appreciation of how our people and operations can help their business launch and develop.