Eleven Sports targets UK return with streaming service for lower-tier properties

Subscription broadcaster Eleven Sports is plotting a return to the UK, albeit via an entirely different model to the one adopted during the short-lived entry to the market that was ultimately scuppered by its failure to strike carriage agreements with pay-television platforms.

Having launched in the UK and Ireland in August 2018 as an online streaming service, Eleven struggled to gain a foothold in the market as dominant players BT and Sky proved reluctant to agree linear carriage deals with the new market entrant.

The broadcaster is now planning a return to the market, however, according to chief executive Luis Vicente.

Speaking to trade journalists, he said that Eleven’s new trio of programming verticals of women’s sports, second-tier sports and esports announced on Monday amid a rebrand afforded the broadcaster “the chance to consider a comeback”.

He said: “The UK is still an unfinished story for us. We believe that we will be back but not necessarily in the same way that we tried before.”

The UK return is “subject to the rights that can become available”, according to Vicente, who joined as chief executive in January.

SportBusiness understands that Eleven would not be looking to target premium rights upon any return, nor seek carriage deals for linear channels. Instead, an advertising-funded streaming service for lower-tier sports is likely to be the model adopted, not dissimilar to the broadcaster’s operation in Japan.

Eleven invested heavily in rights to Spain’s LaLiga in the UK (from 2018-19 to 2020-21), replacing Sky as the rights-holder, but held contract renegotiations with the league at the end of 2018 to end the agreement amid the financial difficulties suffered by its UK business.

Rights were also secured to Serie A, the Eredivisie, the Chinese Super League and Allsvenskan, plus the 2018 edition of US golf major the PGA Championship. A distribution deal with Virgin Media, the telecoms and digital television provider, was all but finalised in the autumn of 2018 before collapsing.

Vicente noted: “Of course we are not going to repeat the same mistake of just starting and not having the situation fully securitised. We would definitely like to come back as we still have a story to finish in the UK.”

He continued: “The UK story is an example of the aggression that Eleven has as a new player in the market. It always happens when you are very aggressive and a fast-growing company that sometimes you lose and other times you win…

“…the company has learned a lot in terms of the steps we can make and the size of the steps we can make.”

Luis Vicente

Vicente, who was formerly Fifa’s chief digital transformation and innovation officer, said that a UK return is “something that I’d like to make a success of” from a “different angle” and in a “different way”, underling the country’s “massive interest” in amateur and semi-professional sport.

He continued: “I’ve been in the UK and seen a lot of non-league [football] matches and it’s an amazing experience. We definitely want to become a player in the UK again.”

As part of the Aser Ventures-owned broadcaster’s ‘2.0 strategy’, Eleven has introduced the Eleven Women, Eleven Next and Eleven Esports programming verticals. The Eleven Next vertical will focus on local sports that struggle for consistent broadcast exposure, an extension of the strategy already adopted in Italy, where live coverage of the third-tier Serie C and fourth-tier Serie D is offered.

“We looked at where the untapped opportunities were and longtail, and what we call newtail. They are important opportunities which were not being prioritised at scale by anyone,” according to Vicente.

“On that, we looked at some of the examples we already had in the business and when you look at what Eleven Next will be, it will be focused on the second-tier and third-tier of football worldwide and also second and third-tier sports.”

Profitability ‘in multiple markets’, DAZN’s ‘unbelievably difficult task’

Following on from the news last year that Eleven Sports’ Belgian operation had reached profitability, having launched in August 2015, Vicente said that the broadcaster is now profitable in “multiple markets”.

These include Portugal, where Eleven launched two years ago, and Poland, where the operation was taken over by media company Telewizja Polsat.

Fielding a question from SportBusiness, Vicente said: “As we already knew, the Asian markets take more time. We are very close to profitability in Asia but we’re still not there. That’s no surprise as these markets require more time and investment to mature.”

Along with Japan, Eleven Sports has operations in Myanmar – with distribution on free-to-air and pay-television platforms and an OTT service being launched – and Taiwan, where it offers three localised channels and distribution deals with cable and IPTV operators.

The broadcaster is “looking at eventually opening some new markets” in Asia in “the next years”, according to Vicente.

Commenting on the Italian operation, where a subscription OTT only model is adopted, the chief executive said profitability is very close and that he expects it to be achieved during this financial year.

He continued: “Italy is a very different market from the other European markets we have. It’s a market where we are testing our strategy where we try to acquire big rights in the small markets and small rights in the big markets. Italy has been our test lab for that.”

Eleven Sports has 82,000 subscribers to the Italian lower-league football coverage paying an average of €4.99 ($5.93) per month, Vicente revealed.

As a group, Eleven Sports is profitable, Vicente said. He added: “I’m very driven by profitability…so all our investment plan has been reassessed and repositioned because of that.”

Vicente also drew comparisons with rival DAZN and underlined Eleven Sports’ model of different distribution strategies in each market, be it linear carriage deals, ad-funded streaming or subscription OTT streaming.

He observed: “To try and just go from scratch and build a business direct-to-consumer is very difficult. For DAZN, one of our peer companies for whom I have a lot of respect, sometimes their task and the journey they’re trying to do is sometimes misinterpreted.

“What they are trying to do is unbelievably difficult. It’s easy for Facebook, Google or Amazon to start a direct-to-consumer business in sport from scratch because they have the data.

“DAZN started from scratch and organically had to build a database of consumers, spending hundreds of millions every year, which is a massive investment. It’s sad to see that sometimes people don’t realise how difficult it is. They are a great example of someone that is trying their very best to mature that model.

“[But] it’s a very difficult fight and normally it’s a fight that takes 10 to 12 years to mature.”

The Eleven Sports model, he stressed, is “very much focused on trying to get a return on investment faster with less risk”.

Vicente added: “It’s better to go step by step than to make a bigger step, unless you have unlimited funds, which is not the case of a company like us with only one shareholder.”