We’ve been here before. And we’re going there again. Except, this time, things appear to be for the worse. Or, is it?
Of course, I’m talking about the Formula 1 rights announcement in July 2011 compared with the MotoGP rights announcement in May 2013. Yesterday, it was announced that BT Sport will be screening MotoGP exclusively live for the next five seasons. The feeling amongst MotoGP fans yesterday can be compared with the feelings of Formula 1 fans on July 29th, 2011. The circumstances behind both deals though, are significantly different. Regular readers of my blog will have seen me revisit the BBC and Sky deal on many occasions, most recently in March. BBC were needing to make cost cuts as a result of the licence fee being frozen, which in real money is a drop in income. As thus, in July 2011, BBC went to Sky asking if they wanted to share the F1 coverage with them. The benefit of that meant that BBC get to keep coverage, whilst cutting costs at the same time, and Sky gained in getting ten races exclusively live. BBC’s Formula 1 contract in 2011 was not due for renewal, as their original contract was set to last until the end of the 2013 season. If they had kept with Formula 1 on an exclusive basis, the rights negotiations between them and Formula One Management would have began in Winter 2012. BBC chose to enter the deal with Sky for Formula 1. Unlike the MotoGP deal, no other bids were invited, despite third parties clearly interested. There was one loser here: the fan, as now only half of Formula 1 races are live on terrestrial television.
In comparison, the current UK MotoGP deal was set to expire at the end of this season, meaning that as per any other broadcasting contract, the rights holder – in this case Dorna – would have sent the contract out to tender. BBC and Eurosport have already confirmed that they bidded unsuccessfully. I think it is fair to assume that their bids would have been slightly higher than previously to cover both of their interests. Neither of their bids (to form a combined bid as their bids would be in tandem) would have been significantly higher than before, though. It would not be in Eurosport’s interests to put in a high bid, I imagine their budget is fairly tight as it is for a channel of their nature. At the same time for reasons already explained, BBC would not be going significantly higher. MotoGP’s ratings have remained stable for many years at just over one million viewers per race, so there is no logical reason for them to bid any higher than they need to. Also, if BBC for example bid £3 million higher than previously and won, it would have meant that the Sports department would have to find savings elsewhere. So in come BT Sport, with a lot of money behind them, and the strength to put in a deal priced at £10 million per year, for arguments purposes. Neither BBC or Eurosport have the ability to put together a response. They have both been priced out the market.
Unfair, you may say, but it was a fair and due diligent process (unlike the ‘behind closed doors, no one else invited’ BBC and Sky deal). It does not mean that fans should like it, though. Of course, BT Sport should not be the enemy here, the majority of complaints should go to Dorna. They could have said to BT Sport “well we’re sorry, but you do not provide free-to-air coverage to over 90 percent of the United Kingdom, therefore we are sticking with BBC and Eurosport”. They didn’t. As always in the broadcasting world, money wins and fans lose. If Dorna really cared about the fans, they would have stuck with those that have provided coverage to the masses many years previously: BBC and Eurosport. Yes, neither have provided the interactive features and so and so forth. But for me, free to air and terrestrial television coverage is absolutely fundamental even in the digital age for motorcycling to succeed in this country. I would like to be proven wrong and be back here next April writing an article saying “One million viewers watch the Qatar Grand Prix on BT Sport”. I doubt it, unfortunately. I won’t be one of the ones switching over to BT Sport from August. This is not a battle of BT Sport vs Sky Sports. This is a battle of broadband providers, as was clearly evident in the free marketing unveiled yesterday.
An interesting question to ask is whether Dorna had any bids from another other broadcasters. Broadcasters never tend to say whether they put in a failed bid for something, unless they were the current contract holders. Starting with the terrestrials, I do not think ITV would have put in a bid, as MotoGP would have clashed on the majority of occasions with the British Touring Car Championship, which itself is now in a perfect position to become the second most popular form of motor sport on TV in this country. Channel 5 I doubt would afford it whilst Channel 4 is an unknown. The other possibility is Sky Sports. A few motorcycling personalities on Twitter at the latter end of 2012 making noises about Sky and motorcycle racing. I put in a request to Sky to ask if they did bid for the rights, but as of writing I have yet to receive a reply.
I think the fact that every MotoGP race will be exclusively live on BT Sport makes this an even worse pill to swallow than the BBC and Sky Sports F1 deal back in 2011. A lot of people inside the business will spin this as if it is some kind of good deal for MotoGP, but any deal which slashes your audience instantly is not a good one. In my opinion, a lot of people will see BT as the next ITV Digital/Setanta Sports/ESPN. Dorna have questions to answer on why they appear to have gone back on their 2008 intent of keeping MotoGP free-to-air. I always had MotoGP down as one motor sport which considered its fans first, with its fan friendly social media output and the such like. It appears, now that is not quite the case. Today, or at least when the chequered flag in Valencia, MotoGP may be one fan less. Or, at least 900,000 fans less in this country. I have e-mailed Dorna to see if there are any plans for a terrestrial television highlights package for 2014 onwards for those fans that will soon turn into ‘lapsed fans’ as a result of this deal. As always, I will post on here if I get a response.