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Commentary

Live coverage of Olympics: Lessons to learn for 2020

It has been looming on the horizon but the time has finally come - Singapore has said no in the face of escalating broadcast rights fees.

By declining to provide extra funds for Mediacorp to secure live coverage of the Olympics, the Government is sending a clear message: It will not be held to ransom by broadcast rights holders.

One can say that the writing was on the wall. Ever since Singtel's excessive 2009 bid for the English Premier League, Singapore's broadcaster and pay-TV operators have earned a reputation for being able and willing to pay top dollar for televised sports.

As far as rights holders were concerned, it set the tone for future negotiations.

 

The 2010 World Cup was secured only 35 days before kick-off as both sides pushed for a better deal.

 

Last season, Spain's La Liga was screened only four months into the campaign.

But, with less than two weeks to the Olympics, where Team Singapore could return with their best medal haul, one wonders if this fiasco could have been avoided with better planning.

Yes, bottom lines have to be respected.

If broadcasters are unable to monetise the Olympics coverage, in part due to the Games' odd hours that are unattractive to advertisers (Rio de Janeiro is 11 hours behind Singapore), it would be unwise to fork out an astronomical sum.

Yes, with escalating broadcast rights fees, as Singaporeans have experienced first-hand with the World Cup and English Premier League, perhaps it is time to draw the line and say enough is enough.

The escalating cost is not helped by the International Olympic Committee's decision to award broadcast rights to a third party - one whose primary concern is to maximise profit - over a national broadcaster like Mediacorp.

But there are valuable - and painful - lessons to be learnt here.

First, Dentsu was awarded the rights in 2013 and opened talks with Mediacorp the same year.

It is hard to understand how, after three years, no deal for live coverage could be struck, especially as the 16 other territories under Dentsu have already done so.

Second, for the sake of viewers, it is imperative that the Government and local broadcasters decide once and for all the importance of beaming the Olympics live, and find a balance between commercial viability and national interest.

One alternative could be the national broadcaster and the telcos combining to submit a joint bid, as was the case when Singtel and StarHub bid for the 2010 World Cup to share costs.

Last year's Budget saw annual funding for Mediacorp rise by 28 per cent to $250 million over five years. Can more of that be set aside for major events like the Olympics, especially if Singapore continues toproduce more world-class athletes?

The private sector can also step in, by way of sponsorship for Olympic programming. Companies like Samsung, McDonald's and Panasonic are all Olympic sponsors. Why couldn't they be persuaded to come on board locally?

Broadcasters and pay-TV operators need to be consistent with the message they are sending.

Can Singapore claim to be serious about promoting local sports when it can pay more than $200 million for three seasons of English Premier League action, but baulk at spending less than 5 per cent of that on the Olympics, where 25 of the nation's best athletes are pushing themselves to their limits?

Are we taking ourselves seriously as a sporting nation if we invest $40 million in high- performance athletes but, when they have reached sport's grandest stage, deprive them of sharing the moment with their supporters?

Broadcast rights fees are only going to increase. Which is why, painful as it will be to miss out on a potentially monumental 2016 Olympics, all parties need to start planning to avoid a repeat four years from now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons to learn for 2020'. Print Edition | Subscribe