Free-to-air WRC deals coming in Japan and Africa, US broadcaster still aspirational

The FIA World Rally Championship is close to announcing free-to-air broadcast deals in both Japan and Kenya ahead of stops in both countries on this year’s schedule.

Pay-television broadcaster J Sports already holds WRC rights in Japan but exposure on free-to-air television is in the process of being secured.

Oliver Ciesla, managing director at WRC Promoter, told SportBusiness that the commercial rights-holder is about to close agreements for free-to-air coverage with “one or two different broadcasters and in different formats”.

TV Asahi and Nippon TV both offered free-to-air WRC coverage last season.

A free-to-air deal encompassing Kenya and East Africa as a whole will also soon be announced. WRC Promoter is also currently negotiating a sub-Saharan pay-television deal, Ciesla said on the sidelines of the Spobis conference in Düsseldorf.

Econet Media acquired WRC rights across sub-Saharan Africa for Kwesé TV (from 2017 onwards), but the pay-television arm shut down last year after filing for voluntary administration.

The Safari Rally Kenya will take place from July 16-19 in Nairobi County while the Rally Japan will be held from November 19-22 in Nagoya. It will be the first time in 21 years that both Asia and Africa feature on the WRC calendar.

The series’ international media rights cycle runs from 2019 to 2022 but WRC Promoter has been in the process of securing additional distribution.

There was a recent change of broadcaster in the UK as free-to-air commercial network ITV secured highlights rights (from 2020 to 2022) and Finnish public-service broadcaster YLE has taken up its two-year extension option (to 2022). An extended agreement with Spanish public broadcaster TVE has also been secured (to complement extensive coverage on subscription OTT service DAZN).

Asked if the recent string of free-to-air deals indicates a policy to drive more exposure for the property, Ciesla said: “In the last years in the markets where the sport enjoys a big relevance, we made big steps forward.

“We continue to get more and more retention in the free TV sector in Japan [for instance] and we get tremendous coverage on YLE of all the events throughout the entire year. But also in Sweden [SVT], Spain [TVE and TV3], Portugal [RTP] and many other countries.”

He continued: “As a brand you always have the desire to be as visible on as much free-to-air television as possible. Unfortunately, the sport does not have the relevance in all markets that you get the free-to-air exposure that you wish to have. So either standalone or in parallel you’re happy to enjoy pay-TV coverage, which gives you in particular the number of broadcast hours that we also need.

“It’s always a combination and optimisation process between commercialising the rights and creating some income and, on the other side, gaining sufficient visibility for the brands involved on the free-to-air channels.”

The “particular attention” given to WRC on free-to-air television in a host country is “very important” for local organisers to be able to offer their own national sponsors visibility in the country, Ciesla added.

The free-to-air output is supplemented by news access agreements and footage is offered through the Red Bull Content Pool. In 2013, Red Bull Media House came together with the Sportsman Media Group to create the Munich-based WRC Promoter entity.

WRC Promoter distributes the broadcast rights worldwide, although the Pitch International agency sells the rights in selected markets in Asia and Europe.

US broadcast ambitions

One major territory in which WRC Promoter struggles to secure a broadcast deal is the US market, given the wealth of domestic and international properties competing for attention in the motor-sports sector.

However, Ciesla is confident that WRC events held stateside in the coming years will spark interest among broadcasters. Negotiations are ongoing, he said, and with a particular focus on talks with digital channels.

Ciesla said: “Unfortunately we did not manage to be successful in competition with all the other sports to get an interesting broadcast agreement on one of the big channels.”

He continued: “We hope we will do better as we have a dedicated strategy to bring one of our events to the United States in the next two to three years. This might increase the relevance of our sport and bring us additional interest from broadcast partners.”

As evidence of the appetite among North American fans, Ciesla said that viewers in Canada and USA are in the top three subscriber markets for WRC+, the championship’s OTT platform.

WRC has secured sporadic coverage on US television in recent years. WRC Promoter has previously been able to land selected coverage on Fox Sports as an extension of the broadcaster’s coverage in Latin America. In 2017, both Eleven Sports and ESPN held WRC rights in the US market.

WRC+ holdbacks

The subscription WRC+ streaming service launched in 2018 and coverage in international markets is not geo-blocked despite some concerns among pay-television broadcasters about the offering impinging on the value of their rights.

Ciesla said: “It was a strategy when we invested in this platform that we would not geo-block it in any country.

“It is globally available without exception. So, we retain a certain package of rights in our broadcast agreements that we use on our own channels, plus short videos and promotional clips containing WRC footage to make available to our sponsors and the teams themselves to promote their brands.”

The OTT platform, which is priced at €8.99 ($9.93) per month (or €89.99 for a year), has been given a fresh look with a new orange and blue colour scheme amidst an overhaul of the WRC’s digital channels.

On the balance between offering extensive direct-to-consumer streaming and striking deals with linear broadcasters, Ciesla remarked: “Linear television remains extremely important for us and particularly on the news distribution [side].

“But as the sport takes place from the shakedown [testing] on Thursday to Sunday at midday, this entire stretch cannot be covered by linear television – for sure not by linear free TV – so we must offer a parallel stream.

“We’ve continuously added features to the platform for six years and to create a much better functionality. We are much more flexible now, adding in different features and different payment models to be more focused on a market-by-market offer in the future.”

The 2020 WRC season began last month in Monte Carlo and continues next weekend with Rally Sweden.