A Tough Game For Eurosport

The all-sports channel broadcasts it all, to 54 countries in 19 languages. But without access to the Premier League soccer games, it's a tough scrimmage

It's mid-afternoon at the offices of Eurosport in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, and a monitor above the reception desk is showing the under-17 world football championships, interrupted by promotions for upcoming broadcasts of the Asian X Games and the table tennis World Cup. A separate screen shows the canoe/kayak Slalom World Championships in Australia, with graphics in English but a promotional spot in German.

Because the local competition is so entrenched, and because the challenges of operating in so many languages and countries are daunting, ESPN does not have a huge footprint in Europe. For its part, Eurosport is trying to master this complicated game: It's what you might get if you merged ESPN with the United Nations. Events from tennis tournaments to motorcycle races are broadcast over a network of 41 satellites to 54 countries in up to 19 languages.

The language muddle isn't the only reason why trying to be an all-sports channel in Europe is a lot tougher than across the Atlantic. The U.S. has American football, basketball, and baseball, each with a huge following. Europe has just one big-time sport: football (soccer to those in the U.S.). For Eurosport, the problem is that big TV groups such as France's Canal+ (V ) or British Sky Broadcasting PLC (BSY ) have a lock on the rights to top-tier football games. Eurosport and other all-sports channels such as Germany's DSF have to make do with what's left over, such as World Cup qualifying matches. "It's no secret that Eurosport and other sports channels are nowhere near the same success story as ESPN in the U.S.," says Thomas Künstner, vice-president of consultant Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in Munich and a media specialist.

Give Eurosport credit, though. The unit of French TV group TF1 manages to be profitable by broadcasting track and field, golf, or pro cycling. In the first half of 2005, Eurosport reported operating profit of $29 million on revenues of $172 million. But it's likely to be a long time before Eurosport will achieve the same dominance in Europe as ESPN in the U.S. "They are in a market that is unified," Eurosport CEO Angelo Codignoni says of ESPN, which owned a stake in the venture during the mid-1990s. "We have been obliged to invent something new."

Still, Codignoni insists the channel can keep growing. In January the network launched Eurosport 2, which offers a combination of live sports such as cycling or karate along with news and magazine-style programs. Eurosport also now sponsors its own events, taking a page from ESPN. Eurosport has launched the World Touring Car Championship, a version of stock car racing featuring souped-up BMWs and Alfa Romeos. The new programming is intended to make sure Eurosport remains a strong presence as digital TV leads to a proliferation of new channels. Nineteen languages, hundreds of channels -- it doesn't get any easier.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt, with Esha Bhandari and Rachel Tiplady in Paris

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