Generating cash is top of Vodafone’s agenda right now, and we may be seeing early signs of that driving operational tactics ahead of resolving its leverage crisis through either an IPO of Vantage or a sale of its Iberian assets.

EBITDA growth would really help. Analyst forecasts of +4% for next year are not supported by recent history and a simple bounce-back of roaming revenues should not be assumed.

Q3 results were a mixed bag with the very slight improvement in revenue trends accounted for by easing roaming pressure. Green shoots in German fixed is a highlight, with growth in UK mobile a touch disappointing.

The value of certain sports rights can be appraised through three major metrics: the ability to command viewing/engagement, the ability to drive subscriptions incremental to other rights, and the propensity of those subscribers to provide the rights holder with additional revenues.

In this report we examine these three metrics in order to gain an understanding of the tensions in the market, along with the reasons as to why there is competition (or not) for certain rights.

Unsurprisingly, outside of a few primary sports rights, there are an abundance of secondary rights which find it difficult to display their value over others. Their value relies just as heavily on whether rights holders are committing to, or retreating from, major rights.

Sky appears to have weathered the COVID-19 crisis, revealing an encouraging turnaround in its Q3 operating results, with revenue growth flat overall as each stream saw significant improvement from Q2.

Rights costs from a condensed sporting schedule began to hit EBITDA, which remains guided to fall by 60% across H2, with most of the impact in Q4. This was anticipated long ago, and Sky’s ambition remains to double 2020’s EBITDA “over the next several years”.

Having disclosed contrasting performances between its markets, Sky now appears more clearly committed to replicating its UK success in both Italy and Germany, with tangible plans in place to streamline costs and rebalance content expenditure—namely by “resetting” its spend on sports rights.

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 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

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.

Consumer demand for games and consoles has surged during lockdown. Sales are on track for the best year ever, while games production has been resilient, with studios and platforms adapting quickly to distancing and working from home.

New consoles will still launch in 2020, but Sony and Microsoft will need to replace tradition with creativity and smarts for this launch cycle.

Hollywood’s home entertainment offer is crucially missing games. It’s not too late for Disney to change course, and Warner Bros. to move quickly.

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+.

Once on the winning side of strategic French telecoms price wars thanks to a struggling SFR, Iliad now looks wounded, and a possible prey, suffering from declining fixed and mobile KPIs – we expect cash flow losses of €617 million this year

Broadband, in a capex-heavy migration to higher margin fibre, may stabilise revenue with (somewhat) differentiating new ‘Freeboxes’ bundled with Netflix. Mobile (€2.3 billion burned since launch) hopes rest on on-net transition fostering profitability, but the 5G capex race looms

The new Italian mobile venture is explicitly and surprisingly behind the French legacy: it is already delivering a worse performance, and carrying much higher outlays (after 5G auctions spiralled). We believe Iliad has to revamp its model in France and consider differentiation with content to escape the discount brand trap
 

Many European telecoms operators are pursuing a fixed/mobile convergence strategy on the pretext that the addition of mobile reduces churn. We see no evidence of churn reduction from this strategy

Discounts required to encourage take-up of fixed/mobile services are often value-destructive, even before competitor reaction: a 10% bundle discount necessitates a 2ppt improvement in churn to wash its face economically. M&A premia on the basis of convergence synergies raise the hurdle even higher

Most UK operators offer very limited discounts on fixed/mobile bundles for now, sensibly focusing on enhanced services. Vodafone is the most aggressive, albeit less so than it is elsewhere. All UK players should hope that it stays this way