The COVID-19 crisis and suspension of sport has hit Sky hard, with Q2 revenue falling 12.9% year-on-year, and EBITDA (while flat for now) expected to fall 60% in H2 as the rights costs from a condensed schedule hit the bottom line

Underlying trends are hard to discern amidst massive disruption, but the UK remains strong, and increasingly less dependent on sport, with continental Europe a work in progress to repeat this model

Longer-term initiatives continue, with new branded channel launches in the UK, broadband launched in Italy, and scope for further moves in Germany provided by significant sports rights cost savings following recent auctions

Over the past few months we have outlined the evolving challenges that the pandemic has presented broadcasters—from plummeting ad revenues and production stoppages, to increasing SVOD viewing share

Now, however, is the time to shift thinking towards what can be taken forward from this time. There are strategies that were launched through necessity that will provide continued value beyond this period

The opportunity to reduce cost bases, leverage the greater reach of online services, forge better relationships with advertisers and better understand operational needs and limits presents the potential for more nimble, streetwise businesses

Admissions and box office revenues in 2020 will be the lowest in over three decades. The pandemic forced the closure of theatres, putting pressure on cinema to a degree unlike ever before.

The reasonable success of the straight-to-TVOD releases under lockdown has some studios suggesting TVOD distribution will live alongside theatrical in the future. However, simultaneous releases are unacceptable for cinemas and TVOD’s sub-optimal financial reality means theatrical release will remain essential for most films.

TVOD distribution will temporarily play an expanded role, while SVOD will pursue its climb up the distribution chain and big studios will assert their increased power to negotiate more favourable terms with cinema owners.

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.

The UK lockdown since mid-March has boosted TV time to levels not seen since 2014, with broadcast TV and online video each growing by nearly 40 minutes/person/day.

While trends vary significantly by demographic, news consumption has been a common catalyst for linear TV’s growth, benefitting the BBC above all. Although Sky News has also flourished, Sky’s portfolio has been seriously impacted by the lack of live sport.

2019 extended many of the long-running trends of the last decade, but, notably, online video’s growth rate appeared to slow among youngsters, in contrast to older demographics. 35-54-year-olds watching more VOD will have significant implications for linear broadcasters down the line.

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.
 

At the Enders/Deloitte Media & Telecoms 2020 and Beyond conference, players from the sports world came together to discuss the current challenges and opportunities in engaging with fans. There was general consensus that free-to-air broadcasters, pay-TV operators and OTT services all have a role to play in serving sports audiences.

DTC services will enable sports organisations to engage with and learn about their fans, but whilst a complementary DTC service can boost incremental reach beyond broadcasters, rightsowners should remain cognisant of the collective power of bundling.

As viewing habits continue to evolve, fastest of all amongst younger generations, the industry needs to continue to adapt, particularly if it is to have a chance of combatting piracy.

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