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Play Sports Group acquisition allows Discovery and Eurosport to ‘super serve’ cycling fans

(Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

  • High level of participation in cycling and golf leads Discovery to target these verticals
  • Play Sports Group has six million subscribers and over 50 million video views per month
  • Global Cycling Network built business posting content on YouTube and Facebook

Discovery’s acquisition of a controlling stake in digital media company Play Sports Group in January served notice of its strategy to focus even more of its energies on cycling. Already the owner of a substantial portfolio of rights to the Grand Tours through its Eurosport arm, the media company has earmarked the sport as one of two verticals, alongside golf, that are ripe for a multi-platform media offering that mixes live content with lifestyle and entertainment programming.

Through the deal, Discovery acquired digitally-native media brands like the Global Cycling Network (GCN), Global Mountain Bike Network and Global Triathlon Network, all of which will allow it to penetrate what the company believes to be a $50bn global cycling market.

SportBusiness talks to Sameer Pabari, SVP, content & business development, who has overseen the Discovery investment in Play Sports Group, and Simon Wear, founder & chief executive of Play Sports Group.

Why has Discovery decided to focus on cycling and golf in particular?

Sameer: We really think there is an opportunity to ‘super serve’ fans of particular sports and deliver a great set of products and services that actually extend beyond our core offering today in terms of video. And there are certain sports, such as golf and cycling, where we think that that really works, where there’s a high level of participation and a real choice around those sports in terms of time spent and even lifestyle.

It’s been said that cycling has almost taken golf’s place as the number one hobby/sport where fans are willing to spend large sums of money on expensive equipment. Is Discovery hedging its bets by investing so heavily in both these verticals?

Sameer: I think it’s a case of being smart and understanding valuable sports where there is a whole ecosystem around the game, beyond just watching the professionals play and then just tapping into that demand. These sports really fit the overall Discovery strategy as we evolve into what we’re terming the next generation media company. Our mission is to power people’s passions in key areas of interest. Our strategy is really not just enabling people to view but to view and do at the same time. What golf and cycling having in common is a very high level of active participation which makes them a really interesting commercial opportunity for us. Both sets of fans are different, the sport is different, the ecosystem is different so it’s not as if we’re playing to the same rule book or there’s a single template that we’re following. But I think the overall thrust of what we’re trying to do is create an ecosystem of products and services centred around the fan. That’s a real shift for us versus running a multi-sport product like Eurosport.

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What was it about GCN that appealed to Discovery?

Sameer: Simon and I met in 2016 and from the offset it was evident for all to see Simon and his team’s passion about cycling and knowledge of the industry and insight into the consumer. And it was really interesting to see someone just as committed to cycling as Eurosport and Discovery were, but coming at it from a different perspective. They have built the largest online community of cycle fans and endemic brands within the road cycling and mountain biking space. And we thought that taking that and combining it with Discovery and Eurosports’ expertise and capabilities – obviously the rights that we have but also our talent as story-tellers across the board at Discovery – we thought that could make a really interesting mix. That was the foundation of the partnership and that led us to invest in Play Sport back in 2017. Given the size of the market and the size of the fanbase it made natural sense to take that partnership to the next level, which is why we invested further to take a majority stake so that Play Sports really becomes the cornerstone and the engine for Discovery’s ambition in cycling.

Simon: I grew up watching Eurosport. As a cycling fan if you wanted to watch bike racing, you needed Eurosport and so they’ve always been a target on my radar. You look at their history as the place to go to if you want to watch bike racing. For me it was about trying to build the biggest international cycling community. When you’ve got Eurosport and Discovery, who have the best portfolio of cycling rights in the world, there was some sort of natural fit there. I deliberately use the word Discovery as well because you look at the amount of original content that the company creates globally and how international its business is. It has offices in Japan and Australia and all these other places, where we already had ambitions to achieve things for our business.

Simon, how did GCN build such a strong community of followers?

Simon: The real difference with us as a business is that we are a complete pure play in the sense that there are currently about 160 people in the business of whom 95-plus per cent are cycling enthusiasts. I would say around 75 per cent are really nerdy cycling enthusiasts. We were always way too small to even consider entering into the rights game; we didn’t have deep enough pockets and also there’s a lot of white space in between events. We started by asking how we could create an always-on relationship where we’re constantly talking to cycling fans through digital and social content. The business really started in 2013 when we were very lucky to get some funding from Google to start the first channel: GCN. The goal was to register a million video views in the first year – we did 18 million. Fast forward to now where we have something like 3.6 million subscribers across our various channels, we reach 12 million people a month and we now do just over 50 million video views per month.

On which social media channels has GCN tended to focus its efforts?

Simon: YouTube and Facebook. YouTube is our predominant stop. Our strategy is to surf the social ecosystems and create very deep relationships with a very large international community of cycling fans.

How will the partnership work in practice for Eurosport? Will you use it to grow engagement on your OTT platform, or will you use GCN to build the quality of your shoulder programming and to fill out the gaps between your race coverage?

Sameer: I think the opportunity to deliver the best news, content and information, whether that’s about racing or other forms of cycling, irrespective of where the consumer might be consuming that content, is something that’s of interest to us. When we invested in Play Sports, it was a digital pure play and created great content that it published on third-party platforms like YouTube and Facebook. That for us is part and parcel of the business going forward. It enables us to reach a really broad demographic on a global basis.

Simon: What I always say about GCN is that we’re a proper cycling business that speaks the lexicon of cycling. We’ve got two Olympic silver medallists, two world champions, five national champions on the payroll. We’ve got a true authenticity and we’re an incredibly creative business and therefore we’ve learned the art of producing content that is right for these different platforms. Never has a fan been so expert in the thing that they love, through the trillions of searches available to them at their fingertips, through mobile and browser searches. If you get something wrong, whether that’s in commentary or whether that’s in a social post, people are all over it in an instant.

What can we expect from the coverage of the Tour de France?

Sameer: I think we’ll be able to tell those stories with a much deeper pool of expertise, and have more individuals to throw at the Grand Tours, and be able to populate those stories in a much broader range of places than we might’ve done previously. You’ll see the Facebook channel of GCN sharing Eurosport content from Eurosport websites. You may have GCN programming and segments appearing on the Eurosport linear channels.

What does the partnership mean for cycling rights-holders like Amaury Sport Organisation and the individual teams?

Simon: This is a business that’s not just about rights. Our revenue streams come from manufacturing and distribution and marketing and all those other different segments than they do from rights, so this is a very significant global business that goes way beyond just bike racing itself. What has unanimously been well received among rights-holders is the fact that now, with Eurosport and Play Sports, we can actually reach bigger audiences, which is really going to help them grow their individual brands and grow their audiences and drive better sponsorship deals.

How does GCN generate revenues? What are the biggest drivers?

Simon: Ninety-nine per cent of the Play Sports revenue has really come from the endemic cycling market. Whether it’s from bike manufacturers, tire companies, that’s been our heartland because we’re the most well-known, the most loved, the most trusted. We have known the bike companies for a very long time, we have very deep relationships with them. Discovery and Eurosport approach this from a different end of the spectrum where they’re dealing with massive FMCG brands internationally.

Sameer: That was the other thing we were really excited about – the close relationship that Play Sports had with all of the endemic brands in the space. It’s an area in which we have had some success at Eurosport but it was clear that Play Sports Group were really the experts in this field. Getting that insider knowledge of all of the different brands in the space and that ecosystem more broadly was something that was very intriguing to us.

Do you plan to sell merchandise through your combined media products?

Simon: We’ve got a very successful e-commerce business and we sell many tens of thousands of items with our brand on them. We have our own website, we have our own cycling kit, t-shirts, and other products with our own brand on them. This all happened again by accident because we used to give away a water bottle to our fans when they won something – the GCN water bottle – and the water bottle became an iconic thing. After that, we put it on sale and in the first three days we sold 2,500 water bottles, so this is a very meaningful business. The broader question is what we’re going to try to do with it [the merchandising business] now, and that’s what we’re trying to work out.

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The creation of the Velon marketing and media company appears to be an effort to claw back some power by the cycling teams. What do you think of those efforts?

Simon: It is a tough sport. There’s a lot of days of racing in lots of different countries around the world, which are very expensive for teams to travel to and there are huge costly logistics to worry about. The sport has the challenge of course that it doesn’t have ticketed stadiums in the way that you get with football and you don’t have the ability to put a wall around the race, so with the Tour de France, millions of people stand on the road watching it for free.

Team Sky have absolutely dominated the sport over the last eight years with the biggest budget by a significant margin. The gap between them and the smaller teams is phenomenal. They’re operating with a quarter, if not less, of the budget which is not dissimilar to Formula One. With Sky leaving the sport, we’ve got this amazing thing with Ineos coming in, which will make the budgets even bigger. It’s great that organizations like Velon exist, because they are trying to support many more teams than just the super teams. Likewise, we want to support those teams because the more competitive the racing is, the better it is for fans.

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