Kevin Sim – The Bundesliga’s navigator for the Asia-Pac media-rights market

Kevin Sim, Head of APAC, Bundesliga International (Image credit: Bundesliga International)

  • The Bundesliga’s head of APAC is deep in talks with potential media-rights partners for the cycle from 2020-21.
  • Sim cut his teeth in the sports business at MP & Silva in Asia during the heady growth years of the late 2000s.
  • The Bundesliga Asia team is leaning on its deep knowledge of the region’s markets and industry players to drive forward.

Kevin Sim rode the Asian sports media-rights wave during the giddy growth years from 2007 onwards as a young sales executive at the MP & Silva agency. Now, he’s at the helm of the Bundesliga’s Asia business as it charts a course through the choppier waters of the 2019 market, where it is selling media rights from 2020-21 onwards.

The league currently has media-rights deals in Asia with pay-television broadcasters Fox, covering more than 30 markets, and Star, covering the Indian subcontinent, both for the five seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20. In Australia and New Zealand, the rights are with pay-television broadcaster beIN Sports in deals also ending this season. China will not be included in the current round of renewals – the current deal with streaming platform PPTV runs from 2018-19 to 2022-23.

Sim, head of APAC at Bundesliga International, is in the thick of talks for the new cycle, and expects to close a couple of deals before Christmas, with the rest to follow next year. He is selling into the toughest market he’s ever faced, but is drawing on some valuable experience in doing so.

Baptism of fire

Sim cut his teeth in the sports industry during those roaring years in the late 2000s and early 2010s at MP & Silva’s Singapore office. He joined the agency after a conversation with its soon-to-be chief executive Andrea Radrizzani, in which he impressed with his passion for Italian football and conviction that Serie A needed a commercial overhaul.

“I was very passionate about football and, when I first met Andrea, I remember lamenting that Serie A needed to really revamp its approach, otherwise it would cede its position to other leagues.”

Sim had to learn fast in Radrizzani’s thrusting Asian office, which when he joined was operating out of a rented mansion on Singapore’s beach island resort of Sentosa, later moving to an office downtown.

“We grew at such a pace, it was incredible. We were a very small outfit when we started – it was just Milan and Singapore. We literally opened an office every other month – Dubai, Japan, then we started in the US, offices across Europe as well.

“I was thrown in at the deep end. There was very little formal training. There was a lot of mentoring, knowledge and contacts from Andrea and Riccardo [Silva, the agency’s founder]. But a lot of it was ‘learn as you go’…So I cut my teeth doing sales, and then moved on to marketing, event management, business development projects, acquisitions, preparing tenders and proposals for various federations, preparing market valuations in order to acquire properties… I was willing to put in the work in order to learn the business and I am grateful and fortunate to have earned the trust of the management, who gave me plenty of opportunities.”

Bundesliga transfer

At MP & Silva, Sim worked with Peter Leible, who was at the time the managing director of the agency’s Asia-Pacific business and is now head of global audiovisual rights at the Bundesliga. Leible helped bring Sim to the Bundesliga in 2018, following stints by the latter at television channel distributor Multi Channels Asia and as head of global media rights at ONE Championship, the MMA promotion.

Sim’s challenge at MP & Silva was learning on his feet in a new industry; today he is drawing on those experiences to maximise the value of his new employer’s rights. One of the most important lessons, he says, has been really understanding Asia’s markets – the companies and people that make them up, and what their goals and motivations are.

“My experiences at MP & Silva, ONE Championship, Multi Channels Asia…gave me a lot of insight into how different organisations work. And that’s essentially led by people – you learn how to figure out what’s critical for their business and what’s critical for driving growth.”

This means lots of conversations, with lots of partners and potential partners, in lots of markets.

At the Bundesliga’s Asia office, he says, “we take a great deal of time to converse with our partners. We look at how to address their biggest business challenges, and from that viewpoint work with them and build a genuine true partnership.

“That is our approach, which is very different from other rights-holders who are normally doing it through a tender. We are really doing it through conversations and dialogue. What is their biggest challenge? Is it to innovate? Is it to change their value proposition? Is it piracy?”

The result is a high degree of tailoring for media partners. This involves, for example, putting a heavy focus on fighting piracy in Malaysia, where pay-television partner Astro (via carriage of the Fox Sports channels) is facing an acute challenge. In Japan, there is a focus on using technology, including a new AI-powered highlights system, to create content that is tightly-focused around Japanese players.

Challenging market

Sim’s time at MP & Silva, he recalls, “were the days when Asia was on an upward trajectory. Every market was growing through the roof. It was an easy time for us to sell media rights”.

How times have changed. Asian media-rights revenue growth has hit the buffers for many properties, particularly the premium football ones that grew so fast in the previous decade. Pay-television was the engine of that growth, and is now a business under severe pressure.

“The short-to-medium-term challenge is the pay-TV side has taken a lot of hits,” Sim says. “Piracy, cord-cutting, the expectations of consumers – who want something of convenience, at a different price point. The proposition has just changed.”

So, while the Bundesliga hopes for a positive financial result from the new cycle, Sim’s messaging concentrates on nurturing partnerships with broadcasters – essentially, supporting the businesses that rewarded rights-holders so richly in the past, and that they hope will continue to do so in the future.

“Pay-TV providers are trying to stay in business and adapt their business models, their products and propositions. So we have invested heavily into innovation, into new services, interactive services, digital services, marketing activities and initiatives.

“A lot of the challenges are around the consumers’ viewpoint, where their idea of value has changed. They don’t see value in just seeing content on a large screen on its own. They want mobility, they want personalised content, they want money-can’t-buy experiences…We need to deliver a much richer environment and proposition than just having the product on-screen, which can be easily pirated and easily replicated.

“We’re working a lot harder than before to provide all this to partners, which will then protect their businesses and help them stay ahead of the curve.

“So, of course, financially, we do want to come out of this ahead, but if we can build stronger relationships with these partners, then it’s all the better, it’s a longer pathway to success.”

Reflecting this more committed approach, and the uncertain future for pay-television, the league is flexible on the length of its new contracts, and open to longer deals than the industry standard three years.

“We think that three-year cycles are challenging, especially when a lot of [media companies] are hesitant about short-term market dynamics. But in the longer term, they know that at some point things will have to normalise. And they will, by then, have a clear strategy in place to adapt to the new market norm.”

Strong fundamentals

In the longer term, Sim shares the confidence of many of his counterparts in the Asian sports business that its fundamentals will continue to deliver growth.

“I’m still very optimistic about Asia-pacific as a whole. There are still a lot of opportunities because of the size of the market…the top economies in Asia are still going to be growing, and a lot of those economies are very large – 2 or 3 per cent of a large economy can be huge.”

Considering the sports media business more specifically, he expects content buyers to eventually master the challenges they are facing, whether those be traditional players or newer ones. He points to DAZN and Facebook’s steps into Asian sports media as reason for confidence about the latter.

“My expectation is that, with 5G and availability of more broadband and connectivity, the demand for content will only continue to grow – that is without a doubt, that is the underlying push. The players that provide the service…still haven’t really come to the fore. We need to see what happens in the next couple of years, when more players will step into the space.”

And, of course, he believes that the Bundesliga has unique content that audiences crave, and that media companies will need to drive their businesses forward.

“The younger generations want original content – something that’s authentic, something that matches their values, and on that basis they are willing to pay for it.  And I truly believe that’s what the Bundesliga stands for and can offer –  a real football experience personified by our ethos, ‘Football As It’s Meant To Be’.”

The optimism and belief in sport’s commercial potential that impressed Andrea Radrizzani all those years ago is still there.

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