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Expert Insights

16 September 2021

"The WinnerS Take It All"

With ABBA apparently contemplating a ground breaking ‘virtual’ comeback concert in 2022, perhaps they should be considering an adjustment to their popular rallying cry in light of events surrounding the Women’s US Open Tennis Final last weekend.

The decision by the broadcast rights holders Amazon Prime to share live coverage of the Women’s Final from Flushing Meadows between eighteen year old British player Emma Raducanu and nineteen year old Canadian Leylah Fernandez with UK terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4 has certainly generated more than one winner.

The quality of the match and the wider access to viewers resulting from the shared rights arrangements in the UK, has ignited a wave of positivity towards the Amazon Prime, Channel 4, both players, the sport of tennis and women’s sport more generally, as well as providing incredible exposure for sponsors, brands and suppliers associated with the players and the US Open tournament.

In a sports setting, it is most unusual to see so many winners arising out of a decision by a rights holder to share rights. That said, aside perhaps from the BBC, who reportedly withdrew from their initial plan to show highlights on the day after the final as a result of the shared live rights arrangement put in place just before the match, and the valiant on court loser Fernandez, all other parties have benefitted from the decision.

Previous Instances of Shared Coverage

In many respects the scenario is similar to Sky allowing for the terrestrial broadcast of the Cricket World Cup Final in 2019 in which England secured an unlikely and nail-biting victory against New Zealand. That result boosted cricket in the UK with the viewing figures for terrestrial coverage vastly exceeding those that would have seen the event on a purely subscription platform.

For the Final in New York, the numbers in the UK are staggering. The shared rights arrangement for Raducanu’s enthralling victory delivered a peak audience on Channel 4 of 9.2 million viewers. Significantly, according to Channel 4 reports, this amounted to a 39.9% share of the total audience and incredibly 48% of 16 – 34 year olds, excluding those who elected to watch on Amazon Prime.

Understandably, Channel 4 were delighted by their coup with Ian Katz, Channel 4 chief content officer, commenting: “We’re so delighted that Channel 4, in partnership with Prime Video, could enable more than 9m people to enjoy one of the most thrilling and historic nights of British sport in a generation.”

“Moments like this are what Channel 4 was made for – it’s a perfect example of the kind of nimble, uncommercial, but profoundly valuable public service broadcasting that a purpose-driven Channel 4 can deliver.”

A Timely Boost

For Channel 4 this was a timely boost, illustrating the value of a public broadcaster mentality at a time of genuine national interest in a sporting event. It will no doubt be seen as helpful in the on-going privatisation debate and it was notable that now former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden congratulated Channel 4 and Amazon for agreeing to share coverage of the Final.

From an Amazon Prime perspective, whilst they may have lost some viewers from their own platform for the Final as a result of the deal, there were other benefits to compensate. First, the arrangement has been received positively in the UK by allowing a major groundbreaking victory by Raducanu to be seen free of charge by a mass audience. This promotes goodwill and trust around the Amazon Prime brand. Yet, this was not a purely altruistic move.

In addition to the rights fee secured, Amazon Prime enjoyed almost total exclusivity as a result of Channel 4 using the Amazon feed incorporating a prominent Prime Video logo on-screen. Moreover, the only adverts during a lengthy broadcast slot of over three hours were promotions for Prime’s entertainment shows. This represented a perfect opportunity to promote Amazon’s exclusive tennis coverage and other shows to a captive audience peaking at 9.2 million viewers.

Public Interest Moments in Sport

The cricket and tennis examples of sharing live rights highlight the need for both rights owners and holders to be increasingly aware of public interest moments arising in sports settings where legislation on listed events plays no role and ensure that appropriate flexibility exists within contractual arrangements to allow for the sharing of rights on appropriate terms and potentially at very short notice as a sporting narrative unfolds.

Agility on the part of terrestrial broadcast partners who may wish to share the live rights will be essential as will be the need to make quick calls on rights fees and advertising opportunities. In this instance, Channel 4 were praised by Amazon Prime for their approach, illustrating the importance of creating good working relationships in achieving accelerated broadcast solutions.

As for the other winners emerging out of the shared live rights arrangements, well Raducanu’s epic victory on terrestrial television has supercharged her marketability and generated unprecedented national and international attention. Already pundits are seeking to put a value on her lifetime on and off court earnings with some talking in the billions of dollars. This is clearly premature, but there is no doubt that the decision by Amazon to share the Final with Channel 4 has helped to cement Raducanu’s marketability, established her as global superstar, thrilled her existing sponsors and opened the eyes of many more potential commercial partners.

The sport of tennis is also a winner. Both competitors in the Final are incredible players, fantastic role models and will surely be an inspiration for many youngsters whether they play tennis or not. The quality of the match was another reaffirmation of the strength of women’s sport in general and will hopefully encourage more girls/women to take up tennis and other sports across the spectrum.

As acknowledged by Amazon, the decision to make the match available to a free to air broadcast partner was ‘counter-commercial’, but having recognised the national moment that the Final represented they made the big call which was duly answered by Channel 4. Both deserve credit. They have facilitated a feel good factor around the players, the sport of tennis, showcased two amazing role models to a huge and young audience in the UK.

Which just goes to show that sometimes it is winners from across the sports process and not just the winner in the sporting arena which can truly take it all…..ABBA please note…..

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