Entertainment

Leila Abboud is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously worked for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

Europe is football mad at the moment, with the European Championship kicking off in Paris on Friday. There's a similarly unhinged feel on the continent around the bidding for soccer TV rights.

Rupert Murdoch's Sky has had to stump up 3.5 billion euros ($4.5 billion) to keep hold of most of the broadcasting of Germany's top-flight league soccer through 2021 -- an 80 percent increase on the last package. The average cost per game will rise 90 percent, according to Credit Sights analysts. This follows the TV deal for English Premier League football, where Sky's price jumped 70 percent to 4.2 billion pounds ($5 billion). 

In truth, the Murdochs have little option but to keep paying up. Sky was built on football, and losing out to rivals would be hugely damaging (hence a 3 percent jump in the share price on Thursday). Just ask Vincent Bollore, the Vivendi chairman, who was knocked back in his own attempt to secure French league soccer rights through a 1.5 billion euro deal to exclusively distribute Qatar's BeIN Sports channel.

Vivendi's Canal Plus had owned all the French rights before the Qataris, and will be kicking itself for ever being outbid now domestic regulators have decided that its BeIN deal would harm competition.

Canal Plus is Vivendi's biggest driver of sales and cash flow, but it's been losing some 100,000 French customers a year since oil-rich Qatar scooped up most of the country's best sports. Bollore lobbied hard for the BeIN deal, arguing it was essential to return Canal Plus in France to profit. Like someone on the end of a Roy Keane tackle, he'll be hurting.

Heavy Defeat
Canal Plus's French losses have deepened in the past four years
Source: Company presentation

With all this in mind, it's easy to understand Sky's thinking. Even in the era of YouTube and Netflix, live sports remain one of the few entertainments for which people are willing to fork out cash. For pay-TV companies, the equation's simple, lose the best rights and lose customers. Better to cough up than let newcomers gain a foothold.

Yet Murdoch's gambit is hardly risk free, despite the relief rally in the shares driven by certainty about cost. The rights bubble is a gift from the gods to Europe's soccer teams and their gilded stars, but for those on the paying end, it's anything but. 

Own Goal
Television rights for Europe's top soccer leagues are getting more expensive
Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

It could have been worse for Sky in that Deutsche Telekom didn't win any games, so Germany won't resemble Britain where telecoms leader BT has emerged as a strong challenger on football broadcasting.

But Sky still needs to show that writing a big check to the Bundesliga was worth it. One analyst said the phasing of the deal's costs means he's upping his estimate for Sky's 2018 ebita by 7 percent but downgrading 2020 by 6 percent. Pay-TV adoption is also lower in Germany than Britain and Sky has its work cut out building a promised 10-million subscriber business.

Murdoch will be pleased that he still has a ticket to the match, unlike fellow billionaire Bollore. But after being scalped on the price, he has no margin for slip-ups.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leila Abboud in Paris at labboud@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net