With streaming services limbering up to compete for TV sports rights, BT Sport’s willingness to give away some of its most prized content on the very platforms mooted as emerging rivals appears counterintuitive.
But the broadcaster's chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh tells The Drum that there’s more to be gained from treating the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as partners than fearing them as threats.
The logic is that social platforms can introduce this still relatively young broadcast brand (BT Sport was launched just five years ago) to new audiences and – potentially – paying subscribers. This was the mentality behind the decision to stream May’s Champions League final – the jewel in the crown of its schedules – on YouTube for free, and in premium 4K high definition and virtual reality formats, despite paying £1.2bn just two months earlier to retain the exclusive television rights to the competition.
It is also why BT Sport has made its Saturday football punditry programme Score available for free on Twitter this season and announced that it will stream a weekly taster of its Rugby Tonight magazine show on Twitter and Facebook.
“In the pay broadcast world, sports broadcast world, there’s large numbers of the audience who will tell you they can’t afford it or don’t know about it,” Hindhaugh says.
“When you put something like BT Sport Score on Twitter, it amplifies your programming. It gives people a chance to start building a relationship with BT Sport. [It’s an] awareness drive of seeing who our talent are, seeing the production, showing that we’re accessible, showing that we want to engage.”
As a condition of BT Sport’s centrepiece Champions League deal, upon which it has hung so much of the marketing for its combined television and broadband proposition, the broadcaster is committed to showing one free game a week. To fulfill this obligation, and at the same time extol the virtues of its own subscription service, it set up the free-to-air BT Sport Showcase channel. But Hindhaugh felt it could go further.
“The challenge with a Freeview channel is driving awareness of that is quite hard. When you take something exclusive, there is a danger that you reduce awareness and you therefore reduce engagement. And sometimes there is potentially a resentment that [the sport has] all of a sudden perceived to have gone behind a paywall," he says.
Hence the Champions League final on YouTube.
“We were always committed to putting the final out on Freeview. But what we actually wanted to do was go back to those core principles about why do you do it, and it’s about driving awareness for the competition, engagement for the competition, engagement with BT Sport and awareness of how we cover it. When you put all that together it’s a no brainer to look at that and go, how do we achieve the widest reach?”
For the final, Hindhaugh says BT held discussions with all of the major social platforms before settling on YouTube. “We talked to all of them and said, ‘how would you curate it, how do we get this to the widest audience?’”
The eventual audience, according to BT’s figures, was 6.5 million – up from the 6 million who watched the 2016 final. This was made up of 4.4 million viewers on TV channels BT Sport 2 and BT Sport Showcase, and 2.1 million across YouTube, the BT Sport app and website. For Hindhaugh, this was a result. “With the best will in the world, you can put out all the press advertising you want, all the adverts you want, but you don’t drive the awareness. This absolutely resonated.”
The proof of that will ultimately rest in BT’s subscriber figures. At the start of this year, BT TV had a customer base of 1.74 million, and up to that point it had shown slow but steady growth in each quarter. But with BARB’s data showing its sports channels had less than 1% UK audience share combined in August, it is clear why the strategy of social sharing is key to its growth plans.
Hindhaugh, however, says he puts “no commercial challenges” on head of digital Mike Norrish, "a bloody clever guy" whose task is to "network and build relationships with all of these different social providers".
“Brand awareness is almost as important as subscription numbers. The reason people subscribe is because we’ve got great live content. You can do all that social stuff, all of that interaction, but with the best will in the world if you haven’t got exclusive Champions League, then there are certain people who will never subscribe.”
As such, conservation turns to the topic of the moment – sports rights and the emergence of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime as credible competition for broadcasters. Although BT bears many of the hallmarks of a traditional broadcaster – from the celebrity presenters to its enormous studio at the former broadcast centre for the 2012 London Olympics – it is itself an IPTV platform, using internet-connected set top boxes rather than satellite dishes to reach homes. Hindhaugh, a former BBC executive, can offer a perspective from both camps.
“It’s very competitive. The one thing we all need to be aware of is that at the moment sports rights, unlike other rights, are territorially based. And all of these other players are about worldwide rights. For the time being, for them to be looking at individual territories is a very different approach to what their obvious core business model is, which is about worldwide rights and distribution.”
Hindhaugh insists he is “not complacent”, but plans to continue with the approach of putting his emphasis on collaboration rather than competition.
He points to BT’s decision to make Netflix available through its television service as evidence of its readiness for partnerships. “That is different to how other broadcasters work. That reinforces our approach – audience first. Why compete when you can work together?”