Coronavirus: Unprecedented scramble to replace 'live' sports on TV a challenging ask

Mohamed Salah warms up before the UEFA Champions League match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Liverpool FC at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, on Feb 18, 2020.
Mohamed Salah warms up before the UEFA Champions League match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Liverpool FC at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, on Feb 18, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Football fans clamouring for the return of the likes of Mo Salah and Lionel Messi strutting their stuff "live" on their television screens will have to make do with Kosta Barbarouses for the time being, as local telcos continue to grapple with disrupted sports TV programming owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the unprecedented suspension of major football leagues and sports events worldwide, the only "live" football match offerings this weekend include those from the Australian A-League, like the game between Barbarouses' Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday (March 21), while games in the local Singapore Premier League (SPL) are also scheduled to be telecast "live", when it resumes from a break, on April 4.

There were no English Premier League (EPL) or La Liga matches, National Basketball Association games, Formula One races, tennis or golf action on Singtel and StarHub last weekend, and in their place were re-runs of earlier events.

With the paucity of options set to continue - the hugely popular EPL, for example, will resume only on April 30 at the earliest - Singapore Management University associate professor of marketing Hannah H. Chang noted that telcos face an unprecedented challenge.

"Broadcasting sports events involves intellectual property and agreement between the sports team or league and the telco," said Dr Chang.

"The sports team or league typically owns the exclusive rights to any game or event they organise... This is true not only for live sports games but even for re-runs of classic ones.

"In other words, the telcos would need to hold individual conversations with the specific (content operators) to determine what's possible."

Both Singtel and StarHub have appeared to follow the lead of British counterparts like Sky Sports and BT Sport, who have indicated that they have no plans to refund customers despite the suspension of most of their live content. In Singapore, subscribers pay $49.90 per month for Singtel Sports Plus and $29.90 monthly for StarHub's Sports Pass.

National Institute of Education physical education and sports science assistant professor Leng Ho Keat noted that "live" sports programming offers a unique experience that has few substitutes.

 
 
 
 

"This is the reason why fans are willing to pay a premium for it in the first place," he said. "Telcos will find that they may have to offer much more in terms of quantity to offset the perceived drop in the quality of entertainment."

He added that the average Singapore consumer is "well aware" of the coronavirus outbreak's effect on the business environment, and is "mature" enough to accept that the situation is not the fault of the telcos.

"However, if the telcos could offer some form of compensation, it would be appreciated by the consumer," he added.

"For example, Singapore Airlines made the right move by waiving change fees for passengers affected by travel advisories.

"It is not required (of them)... but they took the step to retain customer goodwill and loyalty. This will be remembered by passengers and translate to future profits."

National University of Singapore communications and new media senior lecturer Jinna Tay said a refund is not the only way to appease customers.

"A sense of goodwill would also be achieved if they offered a trade - for example access to other paid channels - rather than just a flat refund," she suggested.

This appears to be what StarHub has done. On Friday, it announced that it was providing enhanced entertainment options, "which will come in especially handy for customers in temporary isolation".

This includes a free preview of a selection of 10 news, kids and entertainment channels on its StarHub Go OTT video streaming app, which will be available for all StarHub customers till April 24. The free preview includes Hub E City, BBC World News, Boomerang, Cartoon Network and Oh! K. The free preview will also be available for customers on StarHub's Fibre TV plans.'

 
 

It also said it has inked deals to refresh its video-on-demand offerings.

Dr Tay noted that the current difficult situation alone is unlikely to shake consumer loyalty, but added: "Those who are already have accumulation of issues or are unhappy with their price package or service may use this as a chance to opt out of pay TV from the accumulation of problems."

Sumardi Johari, a Singtel subscriber and Manchester United fan, was resigned to the situation.

The 48-year-old said: "It's a bit unusual to not be able to watch live football on weekend nights, but this is something all fans just have to get used to.

"I used to follow the S-League (predecessor of the SPL) closely in the early years (in the late 1990s) but then stopped because EPL was just much more exciting.

"Maybe I will catch a few games now and who knows?

"I might start watching more local matches from now on."