Like many sporting bodies, the English Football League (EFL) has been seduced by the promise of the commercial gains to had by becoming a broadcaster in its own right. But first, it has to nail the fledgling offering to advertisers.
As the Premier League enjoys unparalleled revenue from broadcast deals with the likes of Sky and BT, the EFL is preparing to take hold of its destiny in a bigger way; by becoming its own broadcaster, a move which will open new commercial opportunities for the league and its teams.
The iFollow digital streaming platform will launch for the start of the 2017/18 season, providing coverage of the Championship, League One and League Two games for fans based outside the UK and Ireland.
With up to 46 live games per club, the subscription service allows overseas fans to see every one of their team’s fixtures on iFollow, unless that match is secluded to air through one of the league’s international broadcast partners.
It’s a revolutionary move for the league and one which few other major sports rights holders have yet dared to attempt, instead favouring live streaming partnerships with Facebook Live, Twitter or Amazon.
Speaking to The Drum, Drew Barrand, marketing director at the EFL, summed up the changes when he said: “In essence, we’re becoming a broadcaster.”
Such a move could have an inverse impact on current and future broadcast agreements, however Barrand maintained that the transition has been carried out in a way that ensures the value of the league’s current broadcast deals aren’t jepordised.
“You only need to look at the last round of broadcast deals to see the strength of our current rights with the value up 68% on the previous round. The package of games we were giving our overseas broadcasters was more than enough to fill what their requirements were and that essentially left 1,500 not being used by anybody. That’s where the opportunity existed.”
Fans can purchase a digital season ticket to watch their club's fixture through iFollow at a cost of £110. This subscription alone will generate significant revenue for clubs particularly if research conducted by the EFL, which found 73% of overseas fans would join the service, is accurate.
There are commercial benefits beyond the subscription revenue too. By live streaming and selling the footage which the league already captures for highlights package, it is essentially becoming a broadcaster, and with that comes an array of new commercial opportunities.
And the new platform will look to capitalise on these new opportunities at its disposal, such as advertising around the live streams.
“We’re now a broadcaster in our own right," Barrand said. "So all the usual commercial streams that a broadcaster would have are available to us and the clubs. There's no doubt, commercialising it beyond the subscription has been factored into the benefits we can derive from it.”
This is something which will come with time though, for now Barrand said the focus is on building the subscriber base of iFollow.
“We shouldn't try and run before we can walk,” he admitted. “We need to get the service up and running and make fans aware that it exists, but the sooner we can commercialise it above and beyond the subscriptions, the better it will be.”
Generating ad revenue from fan bases is now a widely pursued endeavour by clubs, who realise social media platforms like Facebook have been the beneficiaries of their large global fan bases. The value of data and driving fans to owned platforms is now on the forefront of clubs’ minds, something which the EFL and Barrand are all too aware of.
“I can understand why clubs are moving towards acting like media owners themselves, it's an opportunity to drive more engagement, drive bigger reach and drive more money. But in terms of the league controls and sales of the main matches, we believe we have the best balance and mix to protect revenue streams and drive everything forward," he explained.
EFL, then, will work to achieve a “delicate balance” driving as much revenue as possible at the same time as taking into account exposure, fan engagement and reach.
Advertising revenue from the live streams will benefit the league, but the subscription model works through each club’s site and so they receive the revenue for their subscriptions and will stand to benefit from the audience data around the broadcasts that can be used in other parts of the marketing mix.
This addresses a common concern from rights holders regarding Facebook Live. By owning its own platform and becoming a broadcaster in its own right, the EFL will be able capatalise on any ad revenue generated and the clubs will have fans on their own platforms, a fertile digital field where financial seeds can be sown.