With a lack of live sport, the lockdown weighed on incumbent pay-TV platforms’ subscriptions. SVOD providers leveraged their cheap positioning—Netflix and Amazon Prime Video now rank above other subscription services in Europe, and Disney+ had a successful launch.

Incumbents—Sky, Canal+, Movistar+—all pursue a twin-track strategy. They are positioning themselves as gatekeepers thanks to service bundles, while redirecting resources away from sports towards original series.

European productions are increasingly garnering audiences outside of their home markets, regardless of the production language. Netflix is a major conduit for European exports, due to personalisation of the interface and high-quality dubbing.

The COVID-19 crisis is compounding the already grim revenue prospects for upcoming football rights sales in continental Europe.

The financially weakest leagues in Italy and France are especially exposed. Serie A is exploring deals with private equity firms, with the pros and cons finely balanced.

There is a window of opportunity for Sky and Canal+—the adults in the room—to build coalitions with selected clubs to nudge leagues towards needed reforms including longer licence terms, reducing the number of clubs and more equal revenue splits.

Sky posted understandably weak results for Q1, amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Revenue fell by 3.7% year-on-year, with most sports subscriptions on pause and advertising markets in shock.

The company has guided to a 60% fall in EBITDA over the next two quarters, as it bears the extra costs of a very condensed sporting schedule, but much will depend on what level of rebate it negotiates from the rightsowners for the disruption.

On screen, Sky faces similar production issues to other broadcasters, but it has continued to enhance its platform gatekeeper role and strong content offering, most recently by integrating Disney+.

In a likely scenario, the suspended football season could be concluded in empty stadiums in a June and July rush, nevertheless with severe financial consequences.

Pay-TV incumbents like Sky face limited risk—at worst they lose four months of subscription revenue for games already paid for. No-contract services such as DAZN must anticipate a more severe shock. 

To limit disruption, pain will have to be shared across the supply-chain with players’ pay first in line. But fast coordination in a continent-wide, multi-layered industry is challenging; in places, the issue may turn political.
 

Despite operating in a challenging market, Sky has continued to increase revenues, with the resilient performance of its direct-to-consumer and content businesses offsetting the disappointing drop in advertising income.

Across FY 2019, EBITDA was up 12.2%; profit growth driven by a significant reduction in “other” costs as large one-off effects disappear and cost-cutting continues.

Extended distribution deals with Netflix and WarnerMedia will protect Sky’s content proposition for the coming future, as would the mooted integration of Disney+.

Comcast’s new, on-demand service, launching in April, is an attempt to break NBCU’s unsustainable dependence on sales to Netflix and other SVODs. Peacock provides a path of digital transition for advertising-funded TV with a revamped low-load, high cost-per-thousand model.

Reach will be built with a free online tier and distribution to Comcast subscribers. Peacock seeks carriage from other pay-TV operators, with which reciprocal deals would make sense (i.e. HBO Max on Comcast alongside Peacock on AT&T’s platforms).

In Europe, where Comcast has no existing major free-TV offering to transition, launching Peacock will be challenging but could present Sky with ideas to counterweigh Netflix on its own service.

With pay-TV competition faltering, UEFA is aiming to stimulate demand for 2021-24 TV rights with early auctions, a possible relaunch of FTA broadcasts, and even, unrealistically, by considering an online service of its own

In the recently completed UK auction, facing no major threat from Sky, BT kept the rights at an almost flat price – probably missing a cost saving opportunity

In the upcoming auctions on the Continent, with former buyers such as SFR, Mediaset and Vodafone having cut back on premium sports, the major platforms’ bids will probably be unchallenged

Sky made a surprisingly weak start to 2019, with revenue growth decelerating to 1.9% (the first time below 4% since the European businesses merged in 2015), due to weaker ARPU trends

However, Sky expects improvement to follow, blaming one-off factors in the quarter. The ARPU weakness drove EBITDA down 11.3%, but this should bounce back across the rest of 2019 as football rights costs turn from a drag to a positive

Comcast highlighted collaborations with Sky across tech, advertising, content distribution and even news, stating it is on track to achieve the anticipated $500 million in annual synergies over the next couple of years

Across the EU4, pay-TV is proving resilient in the face of fast growing Netflix (with Amazon trailing), confirming the catalysts of cord-cutting in the US are not present on this side of the Atlantic. Domestic SVOD has little traction so far.

France's pay-TV market seems likely to see consolidation. Meanwhile, Germany's OTT sector is ebullient, with incumbents bringing an array of new or enhanced offers to market.

Italy has been left with a sole major pay-TV platform—Sky—following Mediaset's withdrawal, while Spain's providers, by and large, are enjoying continued growth in subscriptions driven by converged bundles and discounts.

Sky’s revenue growth under Comcast appears to have accelerated since it last reported as an independent company, largely driven by sports rights expansion in Italy, which also drove bumper subscriber growth in Q3 2018 

Sky UK likely enjoyed a steadier performance, helped by accelerating high speed adoption, a price rise in April, increased international sales, and improving premium channel adoption on third-party platforms

Comcast expects continued acceleration into 2019, with profitability taking a hit from increased sports rights in Italy in H1, but this is more than compensated for by reduced English Premier League rights costs in H2