Paris (AFP)

Towards the "big bang" of TV rights? Between degraded product, financial instability and accelerated growth of new players, the market for football broadcasting rights is hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, an upheaval inviting it to recast its model.

Canal + and beIN Sports breaking their broadcasting contract for the French Championship, Eurosport renouncing its rights in the Bundesliga, RMC Sport demanding money from UEFA for the postponement of the Champions League ... The suspension of competitions has seriously obscured the financial horizon of rights holders.

The DAZN sports streaming platform, a newcomer in particular to Germany and Italy, has already placed part of its workforce on imposed holidays, according to the press. In France, beIN Sports has confirmed a reorganization project, and NextRadioTV, the parent company of the broadcaster RMC Sport, has announced a social plan targeting sports in particular barely four years after its arrival on the market, deemed "unpredictable and inflationary".

However, the domestic rights of the French Championship are about to increase by 60% (to 1.217 billion euros annually) and those of the powerful Premier League abroad exceed 4.5 billion euros over the period 2019 -2022 ... Can these records be infinitely improved?

"It is obvious that the Covid will also have an impact on football. But defining now how it will affect the value of rights, or relationships with rights holders, is still a bit early," tempered this week Jaume Roures, the boss of Mediapro, future major Ligue 1 broadcaster.

- "Overdue model" -

If the Catalan leader has assured that he will not renegotiate downward the contract of French football despite concerns about the "quality" of the championship, the threat of a lasting closed session or the financial losses of the clubs raise doubts on possible degradation of the television product.

"Broadcasters have learned that this kind of pandemic exists and may require new termination or security clauses in contracts," said Stefan Kuerten, director of sport for the European Broadcasting Union.

The suspension of competitions has also given pride of place to online platforms, already in full swing before the crisis.

"Netflix, Twitch (video games), social networks, all of this means that mechanically you have less time to consume sports on television. The sport-business model, very largely based on cable, is suffering", points Arnaud Simon, former managing director of Eurosport France, now head of the consulting firm In & Out Stories.

These new players took advantage of the moment to interfere a little more in the sport. Amazon, already holder of some specific rights like the famous "Boxing Day" English, has thus won several Bundesliga days abandoned by Eurosport.

- "Turn" -

A trend that will have to get used to, according to several observers. "Which actor will want to buy a right that he can lose three years later?" wonders Arnaud Simon.

The future is therefore, according to this specialist, rather to look for on the side of "very punctual" and "cheaper" contracts, like those targeted by Amazon, or on the contrary in "long-term partnerships": five, seven even ten years. "Signing up over time can have a lot of virtues in this period of upheaval," he believes.

"The trend is towards long contracts and reveals a certain nervousness on the part of rights holders who think that the market has reached a ceiling", continues Pierre Maes, author of the TV rights business for football (Fyp Editions).

But this concern raises a deeper question: that of the intrinsic value of live football in a society where consumption patterns are evolving.

"During the confinement, (football) was supplanted by other exciting entertainment products (Netflix, Fortnite ...) and the football fan may have suffered less than he feared", remark Pierre Maes.

To the point of being more demanding? "If you ask him, (the football fan) will tell you + I support PSG, I want a pass for PSG + matches. He wants something affinity. Now we want to sell him (also) the Guingamp- Toulouse, which it is not going to consume directly ", notes Arnaud Simon, for whom broadcasters as rights holders have not clearly understood the" risk "that lies in wait for them.

"If you don't take the turn (of the interaction with the fan) at the right time, you lose ground and others occupy it. And when you are no longer present, we can learn to live without you" .

© 2020 AFP