DAZN takes down Sky to grab three-year Serie A deal

Next season in Italy, Serie A fans will have to turn to DAZN to watch stars like Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo in action.
Next season in Italy, Serie A fans will have to turn to DAZN to watch stars like Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo in action.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • DAZN Group, the media disruptor known as the "Netflix of sport", has bloodied the nose of one of the world's top broadcasters in a watershed moment for fans of live football in Europe.

DAZN yesterday beat out Comcast's Sky to win a deal to become the main domestic broadcaster of Italy's Serie A football league, home to players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, people with knowledge of the matter said.

It will pay a total of about €2.5 billion (S$4 billion) over the three-season contract, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private.

The deal means the streaming company backed by billionaire Len Blavatnik is now the go-to broadcaster for millions of fans in the football-mad country.

The win for DAZN underscores how a new breed of broadcasters is rising to challenge incumbents that have long leaned heavily on premium sports and entertainment packages to earn their money. DAZN offers its customers a range of online content without the need to sign up to more costly long-term contracts.

London-based DAZN will pay about €840 million annually for the broadcasting rights, the people said. A representative for Serie A declined to comment, while spokesmen for DAZN and Sky did not immediately respond.

DAZN's win was not an easy one, and breaks a deadlock that has lasted for weeks. The capacity to roll out an exclusive streaming service in Italy, which has patchy Internet connectivity, was questioned during the bidding process by Sky and some of Serie A's 20 teams, people familiar with the matter said previously.

With €1 billion of technological and financial support from phone carrier Telecom Italia, DAZN was able to dislodge Sky, the pioneer of televised football that held the Serie A rights for almost two decades.

Shares of Telecom Italia rose as much as 3.7 per cent in afternoon trading yesterday, outpacing the 0.7 per cent gain in Milan's benchmark FTSE MIB Index.

Securing the Serie A rights is another sign that a more Europe-focused strategy is starting to pay off for DAZN. It is the second time in less than a year it has scored a win over Sky, following a smaller victory in Germany in June.

"Investing in primary rights is a bold separation from DAZN's past strategy," said Maria Rua Aguete, senior research director at Omdia. "DAZN will be able to benefit from premium sports and the raised profile that goes along with it."

Pronounced "da zone", the company was launched in 2016 and spent quickly to acquire rights to broadcast sports including football, boxing and Formula One across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Still, the pace of that global expansion has weighed on finances.

DAZN reported an operating loss of £1.4 billion (S$2.6 billion) in 2019 and later saw subscription revenue take a hit when the coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halt to live sports. Last summer, a new leadership team was put in place under then-acting chief executive officer James Rushton.

  • S$4b

  • DAZN's payment, or €2.5 billion, over three seasons for the broadcast rights of Serie A.

Together with ex-chairman John Skipper, he evaluated the core markets DAZN wanted to build on, such as Italy and Germany, and those in which it could cut back. It sought to withdraw from streaming Uefa Champions League football matches in Asia and pulled Serie A coverage from its Brazil platform. DAZN also cut a contract with US Major League Baseball.

Late last year, DAZN unveiled a slate of original documentary programming featuring global sporting icons such as Ronaldo and British boxer Anthony Joshua.

"We want to give people a reason to return to DAZN again and again," Ed McCarthy, the group's chief operating officer, said at the time. "Sports fans want more than live action."

In the meantime, Blavatnik has continued to reshape the company's leadership bench, in January recruiting Shay Segev from the FTSE 100 gaming group Entain to be co-CEO with Rushton.

This month, DAZN named former Walt Disney executive Kevin Mayer as chairman to succeed Skipper. Mayer has already expressed an interest in English Premier League rights, according to an interview with CNBC.

"He truly wants to succeed with this," Omdia's Rua Aguete said. "He believes in the top team."

Blavatnik, whose net worth is estimated at US$37.4 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in his bid to build DAZN into a sports broadcasting powerhouse.

He has been willing to make big bets before: Blavatnik bought Warner Music Group for US$3.3 billion in 2011, a time when the industry's revenues were heavily threatened by piracy. The business has now returned to public markets and is worth about US$16.5 billion.

"His investment track record illustrates a keen ability to spot trends early and unearth opportunities that might seem counterintuitive at face value," said Edgar Bronfman Jr, who was chairman of the record business at the time of Blavatnik's acquisition.

"Len has the resolve and drive to tackle any business challenge."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2021, with the headline 'DAZN takes down Sky to grab three-year Serie A deal'. Subscribe