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Charly Classen, ESPN’s boss for EMEA, told Elisha Chauhan why recent acquisitions for ESPN Player illustrate its successful approach to broadcasting non-premium sports content.

While the footprint of its linear TV channels has diminished across the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region in recent years, sports broadcast giant ESPN’s over-the-top (OTT) subscription service ESPN Player has gone in the opposite direction.

Launched in December 2007 and currently available in over 40 countries in the region, from August 2013 to June 2014 ESPN Player logged nearly 32 million viewing minutes, a year-on-year increase of 18 per cent. Subscriptions to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) College Pass meanwhile – a package of the best college sports action including the NCAA’s end-of-season March Madness basketball tournament – increased by 20 per cent year-on-year during the same period.

Viewers can watch ESPN Player on desktop computers, iPads – it isn’t currently available as an app on Android or smartphones – and selected smart TVs and subscriptions are bought for the rights properties themselves rather than a flat subscription fee covering all events. ESPN Player has daily, weekly, monthly and annual passes for its various sports; the NCAA College Pass, for example, currently costs just under $14 per day, just over $30 per week or $167 per year.

According to Charly Classen – ESPN’s vice-president and general manager for EMEA – success has been achieved for ESPN Player by looking outside the sporting spotlight to find “niche but loyal” fanbases. This means supplying coverage – live, highlights and on-demand – to sports, notably United States-based properties, that are not readily available in EMEA and can be acquired for a relatively low rights-fee to build a small-but-loyal following.

“We’ve been running ESPN Player in Europe for over six years now,” Classen told SportBusiness International. “The service has grown in scale, popularity and in terms of the number of people who receive it and we’ve been building out the fundamental service for many years.”

There may well be sports properties from outside the USA we could include…sport in Asia is growing exponentially

ESPN Player currently streams over 3,000 live sports events, with the significant majority of content consisting of the NCAA sports, but also including live action from ESPN’s leading action sports series the X Games, the NASL (North American Soccer League) and the World Series of Poker.

However, a number of rights acquisitions announced in March illustrate the variety in its portfolio: motor racing series IndyCar (all qualifying sessions and races, including the Indianapolis 500); the EFC (Extreme Fighting Championship – three live events, EFC 38, EFC 39 and EFC 40); and BAMMA (British Association of Mixed Martial Arts – three live events, BAMMA 19, BAMMA 20 and BAMMA 21).

“We’re very excited about recently announcing additions to the service. We already have a fantastic relationship with the IndyCar series, as we sell its rights internationally and are its broadcasting partner in many territories,” says Classen. 

“There’s definitely a demand for IndyCar in EMEA, and we know that because we have been selling the rights for it to virtually every single European territory for many years.

“Is it as big as Formula One in Europe? No, but it’s a different type of racing with a different type of fan. The absolute beauty of ESPN Player is that we can very specifically target IndyCar fans not only through our own platforms but also through pay-per-click and targeted online marketing messages.”

Mixed Martial Arts

Classen says EFC and BAMMA were acquired as they are perfect example of properties that have a small but passionate fanbase, adding that though the initial agreements with both rights-holders cover just three fight nights apiece, he is confident there will be a high uptake of subscriptions off the back of the recent surge in popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA).

The EFC produces 10 live events across the year and mainly features fights and fighters from across Africa. BAMMA, meanwhile, was launched in 2009 and features fights and fighters from the UK. The international rights for both the EFC and BAMMA are distributed by the London and Los Angeles-based Content Media Corporation.

“Quite often, sports properties that are not represented in mainstream media, like the EFC, make a very good proposition for ESPN Player,” adds Classen. “In terms of passion sports, they are absolutely fantastic. Not everyone loves them, but people who care about MMA really enjoy them.

“The EFC has done a fantastic job of evolving from Africa, as it has really fantastic international fighters. Meanwhile, BAMMA has been made available in the EMEA outside of the UK on ESPN Player due to its high-quality both from a broadcasting and competition perspective.

“We’re hoping to extend the broadcast rights beyond three events each for the EFC and BAMMA. We think they will work well, but one of the big attractions of the ESPN Player is that you don’t always need huge viewership numbers – as you often do with TV broadcasts – to make it worthwhile.”

Classen says ESPN is always on the lookout for new properties that can be added to the ESPN Player service – as long as they are sports that have regular seasons or a schedule of regular events – and though it has traditionally been dominated by north American sports, the outlook is very much global.

“There may well be sports properties from outside the United States that we could include. I go back to what makes a sport interesting, and there are certainly some Asian sports that could well fall into that category. Sport in Asia is growing exponentially,” he adds.

“Potentially there may be some cricket…the World Kabaddi League was at The O2 [in London] last year and has a London franchise; I’m not saying that’s going to a property we’ll launch, but it’s interesting how vibrant the sports scene is [in Asia].”

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