Radrizzani hints at Eleven pullout from the UK

Eleven's boss Andrea Radrizzani says it can't rely on streaming alone in Britain.
Eleven's boss Andrea Radrizzani says it can't rely on streaming alone in Britain.

LONDON • The fiercely competitive sports media market in the United Kingdom is causing major problems for another insurgent company trying to penetrate it.

Andrea Radrizzani's Eleven Sports, a start-up network with global aspirations, is considering shutting down its business in Britain, just four months after arriving with a blaze of publicity and courting controversy.

Having spent millions to outbid the country's biggest networks for popular European football rights, the Italian businessman said he is now likely to pull out of the country if he cannot work out distribution deals with Britain's media giants for his channel, which until now has only been available online on a subscription basis.

Without the agreements, his business is not viable in the UK, Radrizzani said in a phone interview this week.

His channel had been dubbed locally as the "Netflix of sports", a title that other so-called over-the-top platforms like the industry's biggest spender, British-American billionaire Len Blavatnick's DAZN, has also been cultivating.

"You cannot just keep losing money," Radrizzani said, adding that Eleven could not rely on Internet subscribers alone to make its British venture work.

By outbidding Sky and BT, Britain's two largest sports broadcasters, for Spanish and Italian football rights that the two companies had previously owned, the 44-year-old entrepreneur was entering uncharted territory.

"LaLiga and (Italian) Serie A have been broadcast by the main players in the past," said Mike Darcey, who negotiated several billion dollars' worth of sports contracts for Sky when he was its chief operating officer. "He's picked a more serious challenge."

Eleven would not be the first broadcaster with big ambitions to gain market share in sports to fail in the UK. About a decade ago, ITV Digital and Setanta collapsed, while ESPN's British TV operation lasted less than five years before it pulled out.

"He's the latest guy in a long line to overestimate his model," Darcey said. "Everyone thinks it's easy until you try to make money."

Rights values, largely driven by competition for live Premier League and Champions League football between Sky and BT, the country's former telecommunications monopoly, have spiked in recent years to such an extent that both broadcasters and consumers have become pickier over what content they need to have, after committing billions on football rights.

Sky, which broadcast Spanish football for 20 years until it was snatched by Eleven, and BT, which held the last contract for Serie A, have recently entered cooperation agreements that make content from both companies available on each platform.

Radrizzani said he offered Eleven's content to both at lower prices than they were previously paying but could not reach a deal. Both Sky and BT declined to comment.

Without a deal in place, he is trying to renegotiate Eleven's football contracts with the Italian and Spanish leagues.

It is not the first time Radrizzani, frequently outspoken on issues related to sports and media, has courted controversy. As the owner of Championship side Leeds, he backed a deal to scrap an agreement Sky had negotiated with the three professional leagues outside of the Premier League.

But his most audacious move to date was to ignore a decades-old convention that forbids British broadcasters from screening live games on Saturday afternoons.

Eleven, with the backing of LaLiga, broadcast a couple of rounds of top-flight football before eventually agreeing to stop.

With the rights Eleven has, Radrizzani feels that it is not sustainable as a streaming platform in the UK.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's biggest mixed martial arts promotion, scrapped an agreement with Eleven that was due to start next month because it was unable to secure a domestic pay-TV distribution contract.

To complicate matters, sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG, which shares an owner with UFC, has a small stake in Eleven's British operation and owns the overseas rights to Serie A. IMG declined to comment.

NY TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'Radrizzani hints at Eleven pullout from the UK'. Print Edition | Subscribe