Sports video: the saviour of newspapers?

One of the newest deals surrounding English Premier League second screen activity has seen UK tabloid newspaper The Sun ink a deal with mobile operator O2 to offer its 4G customers content including EPL goal clips.

The Sun’s digital arm, Sun+, disappeared behind a paywall last year and so far subscriber numbers for the service are relatively low compared to the print edition’s national circulation, pegged at 117,000 in contrast to 2.2m. But that 2.2m, in common with newspapers the world over, is in long-term decline and the digital future is very much seen as where it’s at for the industry. Sports video is part of that and The Sun, as part of the Murdoch empire — albeit a slightly distanced one in the wake of recent phone-hacking scandals and more — can draw on all Sky Sports’ expertise in the field to get it right.

It has, though, been quietly building up its own digital rights stable too and is not above straying away from home to do so. It also has a four-year deal for digital FA Cup rights, and digital clip rights to highlights of Champions League and Europa League matches in a joint deal with BT Sport.

O2 is now offering all this bundled together for free in six- or twelve-month packages for new 4G customers. “This is a natural fit for the Sun as we seek old friends and new audiences on a growing range of digital platforms,” said David Dinsmore, editor of the Sun, in UK broadsheet The Guardian.

Funnily enough, the two papers epitomise each end of the paywall vs free access spectrum. Both websites are haemorrhaging money, but both are equally resolute that theirs is the right approach. Estimates are that the free model may even be the most economic — the Guardian Media Group claiming £40m in ad revenues a year from its websites, while the £2 per month Sun has seen a significant design in advertisers and, as already mentioned, subscriber numbers are hardly the stuff of legend.

The compromise position — and the most likely of the emergent models — looks like developing into a metered approach, as exemplified by the New York Times in the US and Financial Times in the UK: one that gives free access to a number of articles per month with a subscription or micro-payment model then kicking in.

Roy Greenslade, noted media commentator and Professor of Journalism at City University London, talks of a “trial-and-error approach to funding journalism as the digital revolution moves inexorably forward. Every publisher is, to an extent, groping in the dark for a successful formula.”

As with pay TV, sport remains an important part of the draw though, and video is an increasing part of the armoury in turn as bandwidth deployment accelerates worldwide. Last autumn, the USA Today Sports Media Group struck a multiyear deal with New Jersey-based video producer and distributor CineSport to show syndicated game highlights and press conference video footage. Other papers already supplied by CineSport include The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and New York Post, but the USA Today deal raised the bar significantly.

So, are sports rights likely to be under further inflationary pressure from newspaper groups now as well as telcos? Probably not, to be honest. The paywall model is yet to be proven, and after decades of declining sales the newspaper industry certainly doesn’t have the money to go toe-to-toe with broadcasters over mainstream sports rights. That’s not to say, however, that the rights to digital highlights packages might not become attractive, especially if they can they can then strike distribution deals with the emergent 4G networks.

There is also a happy workaround for all this for impecunious newspaper owners. The Guardian pioneered what it calls Over By Over coverage of Test Match Cricket, whereby a journalist sits in front of a TV and essentially blogs about it, pulling in comment from Twitter, email and so on. It started doing this in 2002 and, while fairly pragmatic in tone to begin with, the length of a typical cricket match has given it the real space to develop and forge a sense of community. Books have been written, weddings have been arranged, everyone else does it too now, and, as with cricket itself, all manner of human life is in there somewhere.  As the paper itself notes in its own OBO history: “The second email [we received] was from an incredulous member of the public who wondered whether the Guardian was going to resort to providing live text coverage of “100m sprints, snooker, darts or anything else even more bizarre.”

It goes on to note that in the dozen years since, all these have since come to pass.

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