Eurovision Sport’s Killane aims to shake off ‘pseudo-agency’ tag

Glen Killane, the new executive director of Eurovision Sport, is looking to emphasise the positioning of the sports arm of the European Broadcasting Union, ridding it of a lingering perception among sections of the industry that it operates as a rights agency.

Having replaced the long-serving Stefan Kürten at the start of June, Killane has presented his framework vision for Eurovision Sport to EBU member broadcasters during virtual meetings, and has also done so with federations in recent weeks, gathering feedback in the process.

Speaking to SportBusiness, Killane said: “The number one priority is to focus on our membership and really differentiate what we bring to the table.

“There was a sense that we were in some way [regarded] as a pseudo-agency, which is not the case at all.

“We’re a member-focused organisation, we’re absolutely not an agency and there may have been some confusion among federations and rights-holders who may not have dealt with us closely in the past.”

Killane, who joined the EBU as deputy director of Eurovision Sport in the summer of 2018, stressed that the entity offers a “very differentiated proposition” by working on behalf of its member broadcasters as a “not-for-profit organisation” with a “very different take on the value we can bring to rights-holders”.

The Irishman added: “At a time like this security is really important. Obviously you must be credible from a financial perspective as well but we do bring enormous reach across all of our platforms.”

Killane joined the Geneva-based EBU after a near two-year spell as managing director of Eir Sport and Eir TV, owned by Irish telco Eir. He was also managing director of RTÉ Television at the Irish public broadcaster from 2010 until 2016, during which time he worked alongside current EBU director general Noel Curran.

In his new role, he has prioritised the “key deliverable” of “building those really strong relationships with federations” and winning key rights on behalf of the public-service and commercial broadcasters that make up the EBU membership.

“In order to serve our members the best way, we need to serve our partner federations the best way,” he said. “One of the lessons I learned from my time at a telco was that it’s much easier to retain a customer than win a new one.”

Coupled with the emphasis on underlining Eurovision Sport’s market positioning, Killane is also looking to harness the digital and radio reach of the members.

EBU broadcasters are “market leaders on their home turf” with regards to their digital platforms, according to Killane. From his experience in charge of the launch of Eir Sport’s OTT subscription sports business, he feels the consumer has been losing out due to an absence of marketing and aggregation of content.

He observed: “You’ve got a lot of federations and rights-holders going direct to consumer, building fantastic apps that work very well but nobody is visiting them. You’ve got to try and aggregate that and bring it to an audience. That’s where the EBU can come in as we can aggregate and bring an audience through our membership that is unrivalled.

“You need to make it easier for the customers, who have been a little bit forgotten about as it’s become too fragmented and it’s too difficult to navigate.”

In terms of its central digital activities with federations, Eurovision Sport will look to continue a pilot project first undertaken with Swiss Ski, when skiers were given access to the broadcast content to share to their social media audiences. Eurovision Sport is looking at rolling out a similar offering with the International Biathlon Union.

Killane said: “If we’re going to grow then we need to tap into the fantastic platform that the top athletes in each of the sports we’re involved in offer you.”

Rights compensation talks and tenders

Following the spate of postponed and/or cancelled events caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Eurovision Sport has been engaged in discussions with its client rights-holders over adjusted payments schedules and possible rights fee reimbursements.

These talks have been “as smooth as you can imagine given the circumstances”, according to Killane.

He said: “It’s gone remarkably well in terms of the understanding on both sides of the equation.

“We’ve had the European Athletics Championships cancelled in Paris and the Tour de France moved to a later point, but in both cases the relationships are strong and the discussions were productive and positive.

“We’ve also had the moving of the World Athletics Championships in Eugene [from 2021 to 2022] but we’ve got a strong relationship with [World Athletics chief executive] Jon [Ridgeon], [director of broadcast] James Lord and [president] Seb [Coe].

“These are tricky times for everyone but there’s a level of understanding from us that there’s a longer-term game and we would like to continue those relationships into the future and we have many years ahead of us.”

The issue of contractual and rights fee payment issues continues to be handled by the Eurovision Sport acquisitions team.

During a wide-ranging interview with SportBusiness, the outgoing Kürten told SportBusiness in May that the talks were being handled on a “case-by-case” basis.

Kürten said: “If there are postponements, [then] subject to contract we are talking with the federations because we have no interest to see a federation going dry. So we discuss with them whether an adaptation of the payment schedule is possible and this with regard to the internal obligations they have.”

The financial impact to EBU members caused by Covid-19 remains substantial, however.

Member broadcasters such as ARD and ZDF in Germany or ORF in Austria have been weakened by reduced licence fee revenues caused by rising unemployment while those broadcasters depending on advertising have taken what Killane describes as a “huge hit”.

He said: “There’s no point glossing over it, it is very very challenging. But our members are really keen to stress that when we say we’re going to pay [for rights], then we pay. We don’t renege on our deals, even at the most challenging times.”

As deputy director, Killane led the Eurovision Sport acquisition team which, in the months that preceded the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe, oversaw a series of rights agreement extensions with the likes of Amaury Sport Organisation, European Gymnastics, Fifa, the International Biathlon Union and Uefa. A deal with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was then finalised in May.

After rights sales processes were held up by Covid-19, Eurovision Sport is heading into this autumn going into “nine or ten” different processes, according to Killane.

He also references “major” tender processes beyond that, including the next Olympic rights sales in Europe, Fifa World Cup rights and also Uefa national team properties. Uefa and its appointed CAA Eleven agency are poised to go market with the rights in various countries for the next cycle of European Championships, European Qualifiers and Nations League rights, and Eurovision Sport is keen to build on its deal for the Women’s Euro 2021, plus age-grade and futsal tournaments.

Congested sports calendar

Looking ahead, the EBU and its member broadcasters are faced with a hectic schedule of different sports’ World and European Championships, or multi-sports games, following the logjam created by event postponements.

In 2022, this will include the World Aquatics Championships (in Fukuoka, Japan) in May, followed by the World Athletics Championships (in Eugene, Oregon) in July, which will overlap with the rescheduled Women’s Euro 2021 (in England). EBU member broadcasters in Cyprus, Malta and the UK will then shift their focus to the Commonwealth Games (in Birmingham) before the multi-sport European Championships take place (in Munich) in August, running parallel to the European Aquatics Championships (in Rome).

Killane acknowledges that the condensed schedule represents a “huge challenge in terms of production” for smaller and medium-sized broadcasters, where production is a “significant part of your budget”.

However, he added: “There’s a huge opportunity to restate the role that public-service media and free-to-air television plays in the sports ecosystem. There are [now] no better years to do that than in 2021 and 2022.”

“It’s not easy and I don’t underestimate it but there’s a huge opportunity as well to restate the importance of public-service television during that incredibly busy time.”