ESPN’s push to broaden its footprint in Asia-Pacific is taking shape, as the latest wave of rights tussles forge new competitive dynamics across much of the region.
The iconic sports brand has already inked multi-year licensing deals for its brand and content in two of Asia’s biggest and most competitive sports markets: tying up in China with digital giant Tencent and in India with Sony’s TV subsidiary, Multi Screen Media.
More recently, ESPN consolidated and localized its digital properties in Australia, as part of a bigger push into local sports coverage in a country where it still runs its own TV channels. One focus is younger viewers, more open to different sports than the more established and pricier franchises, which are fought over by larger networks.
In Indonesia meanwhile, ESPN has also been offering localized football coverage since mid-2014, via a tie-up with local broadcaster Net.
More opportunities could be opening up in Southeast Asia. High prices for cornerstone international rights – combined with the arrival of new regional players such as BeIn and Eurosport – have heightened local interest in improving the appeal of other international properties and domestic tournaments.
There is no template for possible deals however, or a particular market or regional focus, says ESPN’s VP and GM for Asia-Pacific, Mike Morrison. Much depends on consumer demand, as well as the potential partner.
“We look at each situation on a case-by-case basis,” Morrison says. “I don’t think there is a case where one situation is more interesting than another.”
Before the Sony and Tencent collaborations, much of ESPN’s Asian business focused on program sales together with popular but mainly English-language internet sites such as Cricinfo and ESPN FC, following ESPN’s exit from its earlier channels JV, ESPN Star Sports, in 2012.
While Southeast Asia is one area of focus, Morrison is monitoring other markets too.
“When we started out on the path we’re currently on, we could not have anticipated or forecasted that we’d have a position in India and China at this stage,” he says. “Things came together with the opportunity to partner.”
Both deals, while wide-ranging, provide some room for ESPN to work with other players in specific areas, as well as serving as springboards for deeper collaboration.
“In both cases, our partners can also decide to expand and do more,” Morrison says. “We are looking to do as much as we can with that particular player in the market.”
The deal in India spans television and online, helping Sony fight back on multiple platforms against restless rival Star India, which has made advances in both local sports, including a large investment in cricket, as well as OTT delivery.
Sony has already leveraged one of ESPN’s most popular digital assets, Cricinfo, to produce video content to run across Cricinfo and SonyESPN properties supporting the current World T20 tournament, which is being hosted by India.
At the same time, daily football highlights TV show, ESPN FC, made its Indian debut this week. Star has made its own play in football, supporting local tournament the Indian Super League while recently landing the India rights for three seasons of the English Premier League.
A new digital platform from Sony is also in the works, for launch later in the year.
In China meanwhile, ESPN can help Tencent bulwark a robust rights portfolio, especially around NBA basketball games where ESPN will provide both localized and original content, as well as international football and other sports
Tencent, one of Asia’s most popular digital sports destinations according to comScore, became the NBA’s exclusive online rights-holder for China last year, in a five-year deal.
China’s sports media market is relatively young however, and evolving fast, where competition for talent and keeping pace with audience tastes can be as important as winning rights.
“Through the collaboration, we can learn from ESPN’s professional experience in operations and content creation,” says Yuefeng Sam Xie, Tencent Sports’ GM of marketing and business development.
“Moreover, we can also learn from its talent development system and establish our own specialized team to level up our operations,” he tells Media Business Asia.
China and India are both entering a phase of accelerated development for sport, in grassroots initiatives as well as media coverage in both traditional and online platforms.
At the same time, competitive forces are also strengthening in Southeast Asia, where an array of pay-TV operators and broadcasters are refining their own sports strategies.
“Because some of the top-tier has become so expensive, those who want to stay in the game need to localize with other things,” remarks Josh Burack, head of television, media and sponsorship for specialist agency network Dentsu Sports Asia.
“But it’s such a varied market across the region,” Burack adds. “You need to look at each market individually, and see where the differentiation is.”