Sport is cruel. Just ask German soccer captain Bastian Schweinsteiger after he gave away a penalty kick in the semi-final of Euro 2016. Or indeed France's biggest private broadcaster TF1, which has lost out on showing Sunday's final game to smaller rival M6 on the basis of a coin toss.
With a flashy yet flaky French national team having somehow beaten Germany to make the final, M6 is set for record ratings. Yet the victory will be Pyrrhic: French free-to-air broadcasters will lose money on the Euros because the ever-rising price of premium sports rights overwhelms the extra ad revenue.
The problem isn't limited to France. In the era of Netflix and YouTube, live sport remains one of the few spectacles that draws mass audiences to TV screens. People have simply gotten used to watching series and movies whenever they choose, on any device they want. In the U.S. a decade ago sports events accounted for just 14 percent of the top 100 live-viewed TV shows. Last year, that rose to 93 percent, according to Nielsen.
So it makes sense that some TV companies are happy to pay up to show events like the Euros or the Olympics, as they try to remain relevant to viewers in the streaming age. But the financial equation for traditional broadcasters such as France's TF1, Germany's RTL or Britain's ITV is harder to justify than for pay-TV players like Qatar's BeIN or Discovery of the U.S., whose businesses are based on long-term subscriptions, giving them more cash flow to afford the extra cost.
TF1 spent about 45 million euros ($50 million) to buy rights to 22 games in Euro 2016, and could make 23-27 million euros in extra ad revenue, according to forecasters at Publicis Media. M6, which bought rights to 11 games for about 25 million euros, could get 11-17 million euros in extra ads.
To some extent, spending on live sports is a marketing expense for free-to-air broadcasters -- they're sometimes willing to lose money since the events promote their brands. But that logic may apply more to scrappy challengers such as M6, still establishing their names. It has less appeal for established leaders like TF1.
As such, some private European broadcasters have become careful about the bets they make in sport. Many were happy to leave this summer's Rio Olympics to state-backed channels. Even for Euro 2016, different strategies were seen across Europe. In Britain, ITV split games with the BBC, while in Spain Mediaset Espana had them all. Yet Italy's Mediaset and Germany's RTL and ProSieben chose to sit things out and will suffer a temporary drop in ad revenues.
While such prudence has short-term attractions, it carries risks. As young people spend more time on Snapchat than watching the Super Bowl, live TV has a fight on its hands to keep viewers. Despite the Euro 2016 boost, TF1's audience share declined in June to 20.4 percent versus 21.4 percent a year ago. In that context, it's crucial that advertisers still see free-to-air broadcasters as their go-to place for big-budget campaigns. Nothing maintains that relationship like a mass spectator sport final. Allez les Bleus!
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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