Premium sports subscriptions are the primary sector weakness in the current crisis, and they look set to drive fixed operator revenues down 10% next quarter and Sky’s EBITDA down by 60%.

As lockdown eases, latent broadband demand can be more easily sated, and sports subscriptions will bounce back from the September quarter. A surge in working-from-home is likely to increase both the quantity and quality of home broadband demand, with ‘failover’ mobile backup also likely to be of greater interest.

Openreach will benefit from accelerated demand for full fibre, converged operators will be best-placed to offer mobile backup for broadband, and operators with a strong corporate presence will most easily target demand for home-working products.

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+.

BT’s March quarter appeared to have been going reasonably well until COVID-19 hit, with full year guidance still being broadly met, but the new financial year will be hit harder, with BT Sport, SME and new fibre connection revenue particularly vulnerable.

BT’s full fibre roll-out has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, but it is accelerating its ambitions regardless increasing both its 12-month (4.0m to 4.5m) and longer term (15m to 20m) coverage targets.

BT is suspending and then rebasing its dividend, in part to cover the above costs. While we regard BT’s fibre investment as a good one, investors and analysts alike have been frustrated by a lack of clear multi-year guidance of the benefits, perhaps as a result of BT not wanting to reveal its negotiating hand to the regulator, government and retail partners.

When we look back at consumer expenditure on pay-TV and alternative entertainment options during past economic downturns across major countries, we find a broad confirmation of the industry’s comparative resilience.

Also found are variations between services sold through annual contracts and cancel-anytime rivals, a negative impact on big-ticket products, and opportunities for substitutional services.

Unique features in the current crisis include the suspension of sport broadcasts and an SVOD-rich offering which widens consumer options. If hardship persists, incumbents like Sky could face tougher times than during the financial crisis.

Demand for telecoms capacity is booming, and the networks can (broadly) cope, with the increase primarily in off-peak demand. However, as the crisis continues, maintaining resilience becomes more challenging.

In the short term, the demand for ample, reliable connectivity coupled with reduced churn will add resilience to operator financials, although there may be significant weak spots especially in business markets.

However, as the crisis goes on, the pressure on capacity and network maintenance may grow, and the impact of the dramatic economic slowdown on consumers and businesses will also put pressure on financials.

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.
 

Market revenue growth dipped to below zero in Q4 2019, as pricing pressures bite and smaller players gather share.

2020 is off to a challenging start, with new customer pricing dipping down again, and existing customer pricing under regulatory assault.

With expensive full fibre networks being built, persuading consumers to pay more for the higher speeds they enable will be key.

Virgin Media’s subscriber base fell again in Q4, although strong ARPU growth allowed a slight acceleration in cable revenue growth to 1.8%, and a deceleration in OCF decline to 1%.

Liberty Global group OCF guidance of mid-single digit decline in 2020 is likely to be mirrored at Virgin Media, as regulatory pressure and market competitiveness continue to bite, and mass-market demand for ultrafast remains nascent.

We continue to believe that the best way for Virgin Media to capitalise on full fibre rollouts is to use a wholesale deal with Openreach to expand its footprint to (eventually) nationwide.