Football's coming homepage

Last week the Premier League recognised the potential of the internet, but it has taken a wait-and-see approach on the selling of rights for the live webcasting of matches.
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The Independent Online

The market for sports internet rights is poised for significant expansion as sports governing bodies wake up to the potential of the net as a broadcast medium. Despite this, however, leading sports bodies such as the Premier League, which announced its new broadcast and non-broadcast rights packages last week, remain cautious.

The market for sports internet rights is poised for significant expansion as sports governing bodies wake up to the potential of the net as a broadcast medium. Despite this, however, leading sports bodies such as the Premier League, which announced its new broadcast and non-broadcast rights packages last week, remain cautious.

The Premier League's move to unbundle web rights and offer them separately to those for TV has been welcomed by internet sports service providers such as 365 Corporation, sportal.com and espn.com. Yet its decision to hold back on fully opening the bidding for internet rights beyond its clubs' own websites and a new Premier League website has disappointed some.

Last week's announcement was dominated by plans for TV - in particular, the introduction of pay-per-view for a number of top televised football matches. But six other rights packages will also be up for grabs.

The main ones relate to what will replace the current £743m, four-year TV deal with BSkyB and the BBC, which runs out at the end of next season. One contract relates to 40 live games which will be made available on a pay-per-view basis, another covers weekend highlights programmes on terrestrial TV.

But it is the remaining contracts which internet sports services were awaiting most eagerly - a chance to throw open the sports-rights field by formalising rights allocation to non-broadcast outlets for the first time.

Until now, those Premier League clubs with their own websites have been able to offer live audio of their matches on their sites, but not video. The league has held internet rights centrally, but no one has been formally granted them. Meanwhile, third party sports-related websites act more like instant newspapers: they don't necessarily need audio and video rights like TV to be entertaining and popular - and current bandwidth limitations restrict net video's appeal.

Yet larger website operators do want audio and video rights, and sports bodies are realising they can offer different sets of rights in a number of packages, that the demand is there.

From 2001, the Premier League's video and audio rights for internet use will be more formally structured. Along with a contract aimed at football clubs' inhouse TV channels, a separate contract will cover clubs' internet sites, which will be allowed to transmit audio and video of their own matches 48 hours after they take place. The league will centrally handle highlights material from all matches to be made available on a new Premier League website, for which it is now inviting tenders. Premier League spokesman Mike Lee explains: "Highlights of all Premier League matches will be made available on our own Premier League site. Footage from clubs will be negotiated (with third party, sports web service providers) on a club-by-club basis."

Less clear is how third party sports web service providers will be able to get a piece of the action. According to Lee: "There are no provisions under the new proposals for sub-licensing of internet rights." By which he means either participating football clubs or the Premier League itself offering rights to non-club and non-Premier League-related websites.

However, he does does not rule out third party acquisition of rights through "strategic partnerships" with individual clubs, or by direct approach to the League itself.

Dividing internet rights into two groups - those which are held centrally, and those which are held locally - is already established practice in the US, says Andrew Croker, head of sports at sportal.com. "If this is the model the Premier League is following - which seems to be the case - then it is a sensible and logical development," he says. "The next step will be how internet rights for new access to match footage will be distributed."

Danny Kelly, 365 Corporation's publishing director, however, admits disappointment that the League's announcement did not go further. "We expected an open bidding free-for-all. My guess is the League's decision not to go that far is a sop to the clubs who wanted more money from pay-per-view," he says. "They're leaving the door open for 'discussion', but that's not the aggressive commercial dealing you'd expect if they had truly made up their minds about the potential for exploiting their rights via the internet."

While internet companies such as 365 are interested in acquiring net rights, Kelly adds: "The League doesn't appear to know how to sell (them) or at what price."

Despite this, the Premier League's announcement is a step forward and other UK sports bodies are expected to follow - not least because of the larger web players waiting on the touchlines as European businesses like Sportal and 365 are joined by major US players such as CBS-owned sports.com, and espn.com, which operates soccernet, and is backed by Disney. Observers point to what's already happened in the US where larger sports have managed internet rights centrally, and where smaller sports clubs have opted for centralised management of their internet rights.

Last month, smaller, cash-strapped baseball clubs in the US voted to assign their internet rights to Major League Baseball, whose centralised management will better exploit their commercial potential and increase the financial return. MLB is now considering spinning out its web offerings into an initial public offering - a move also now being assessed by smaller clubs involved in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.

Growing recognition of the potential of sports coverage on the net from both rights holders and hopeful buyers will soon lead to a shake-down amongst sports web service providers - with smaller players forced on to the sidelines as larger rivals bid up the price of net rights as net-delivered video quality improves, insiders predict.

Yet sports bodies remain uncertain of how best to capitalise on their assets via the net. Internet service providers, meanwhile, are adopting a "wait and see" approach - affecting mild interest for fear of driving up prices before broadband capability can make the internet delivery of video commercially worthwhile.

It's a Mexican stand-off - for the time being, at least.

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