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Amazon is starting a step-by-step takeover of European sport and securing broadcast rights for football, tennis and other elite tournaments in a lightning strike that has shaken TV rivals.
The move is intended to further consolidate Amazon’s influence on European wallets and leisure at a time when the tech giant already has powerful positions in online retail and TV entertainment.
But unlike another unfortunate takeover recently – a failed attempt to create a European football super-league – Amazon’s offensive is unlikely to hit a wall of European outrage.
This is due to a number of factors: Amazon is taking a back seat with its sports companies, buying broadcasting rights instead of trying to reinvent the rules of the game. In many cases, local TV players, severely weakened by the pandemic, lack the financial resources to fend off the deep-seated e-commerce giant.
But Amazon’s greatest asset could be the frustration of European sports fans. Pushed back and forth between high-priced subscription plans and complex regional restrictions, many are taking a wait and see approach to the arrival of Amazon, which could provide easier and cheaper access to top-class sports.
“Affordability and accessibility are really popular with the fans,” said Antonia Hagemann, CEO of SD Europe, a pan-European football fan group. However, she added that the initial low subscription costs could be offset if Amazon were able to dictate the market.
“It’s almost like a deal with the devil,” she said.
A big break came last week when Amazon announced it would buy the rights to France’s Ligue 1 soccer competition from the Professional Football League at the expense of local broadcaster Canal + and Qatari beIN Sports – a move that instantly crowned the Seattle-based giant as France’s most important football broadcaster.
A number of other deals followed in which Amazon acquired the rights to broadcast the NFL – the American National Football League – the English Premier League, as well as exclusive rights to some UEFA Champions League games in Italy and some of the French Open tennis tournaments in the evening games. Spain’s La Liga, one of the strongest football leagues in Europe, is reportedly to change the tender terms for the auction of national football broadcast rights to attract companies like Amazon to the market.
None of these deals attracted much political attention, unlike the Super League affair, which sparked criticism from both French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In France, analysts and lawmakers told POLITICO that Macron’s office had no interest in exacerbating the financial turmoil in French football caused by the coronavirus pandemic and that Amazon had not excluded from the market.
The regulators are also keeping their fire. While Amazon is under scrutiny for possible violations of EU competition rules over the way Amazon uses its merchants’ data to increase its own sales, regulators have their hands tied for now when it comes to restrict the company’s activities in sports.
“Every time Amazon increases its presence in a related area, it sends back an image of a machine that needs to be stopped, but it’s more of a political issue than a competitive issue,” said François Godard, senior media and telecommunications analyst at Enders Analysis.
“It’s hard to say that Amazon Prime Video’s development with sports and television shows is inherently anti-competitive,” he added.
Amazon’s foray into sports coverage in France takes advantage of the fact that its TV rivals are in a weakened condition due to the pandemic, had to rescue a broadcaster that had promised billions of euros and that most French football leagues are in financial distress.
The French Ligue 1 is one of the top five leagues in Europe, but is poorer and less popular than its English and Spanish counterparts, and the broadcasting rights are one of the largest sources of income. With the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, French league clubs lack money and prestige. Many also survive by selling promising players like Nicolas Pepe and Tanguy Ndombele to Europe’s super clubs for a high price.
Amazon’s three-year € 750 million deal is tiny compared to the English Premier League, which signed a £ 4.8 billion four-year deal with Sky, BT and Amazon last month, but the tech giant’s deep pockets have been greeted with open arms in France. All the more so since some clubs have also taken out huge government-sponsored loans.
In addition, French football is still suffering from a crisis in December 2020 when Spanish broadcaster Mediapro failed to make its payments for showing Ligue 1 matches. Canal + stepped in to broadcast the rest of the 2020/21 games.
The French Professional Football League (LFP) auctioned the games again and was giving away 8 out of 10 top French league games to Amazon every week until 2024, much to the horror of Canal +, which traditionally broadcast Ligue 1 games. Canal + has now threatened not to show the rest of the games it owns the rights to. The broadcaster filed a lawsuit against LFP, which began before Amazon entered the market, but could force the league to re-open the tender if Canal + wins its appeal.
All of this helped make Amazon a relatively easy trip.
Cédric Roussel, A MP for Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, who led an investigation into TV sports rights, said: “I’d rather take the risk with Amazon than with a newcomer who doesn’t have a solid financial backbone.”
“Politically, however, we need to show the vigilance and attention France is showing to the development of sport in the country,” he added.
For long-time observers, the league bosses prioritized stability over potential profit by accepting the technology giant’s offer at the expense of the two traditional broadcasters. Ronan Evain, Executive Director of Football Supporters Europe, said it was “clearly a decision by the clubs’ crisis management”.
“They preferred Amazon’s security to Canal + risk,” he added.
Amazon Prime Video, Canal + and beIN Sports declined to comment on this story.
In the long run, Amazon’s entry into the sports market could allow the tech giant to dictate terms and conditions with leagues and consumers by raising prices, broadcasters warn. The tech giant is also already better positioned than its TV competitors as it doesn’t currently have the same obligation to reinvest money in local content (that will change with EU reform).
Canal + could argue in court that there is a distortion of competition, said an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The leagues won’t have much leeway if they team up with such partners. You will no longer be the ones who determine the market rights, ”said Grégoire Polad, who represents the TV channels in Brussels.
Jeff Shulman, a marketing professor at Washington University’s Foster School of Business, added that the arrival of Amazon could make it more difficult for rivals.
“As Amazon expands into sports, the delivery of sports will be reimagined,” Shulman said. “The downside is that competing companies will struggle and people will become more and more dependent on Amazon.”
A change could represent an improvement in the current landscape for European sports fans. In the UK, broadcasters had to pull out after initially charging £ 15 pay-per-view for Premier League matches after stadium visits were banned due to the coronavirus.
Amazon currently charges an annual fee of € 49 in France, but it’s unclear whether that fee includes Ligue 1 games. The tech giant is expected to make announcements in the coming weeks.
And some football fans are nervous. “If the market is dictated by Amazon, like in the US, you can do what you want and then there is no guarantee that the subscriptions will stay low,” says Hagemann of SD Europe about the French football deal.
Politicians and regulators can be found all over Amazon’s online marketplace, warehouse working conditions, personal data handling, and tax practices.
But it’s hard to imagine how they could – in the short term – have a say in the company’s entry into the sports rights arena.
“We are less than a year away from the presidential elections, the government’s goal is not to cause a stir and rather to avoid the bankruptcy of several French clubs,” said Jean-Raymond Hugonet, a French senator who specializes in sports and audiovisual Regulation deals. He added that national lawmakers’ hands are tied when it comes to streaming giants, as digital and competition rules are usually governed by Brussels.
The French competition authority said last week it would “evaluate” a possible future complaint from Canal + or other operators, but added that it has not yet received one. The supervisory authority declined to comment further.
Even at EU level, there are few obvious hooks for broadcasters to file complaints, especially since sports rights are dealt with at national level and the European Commission is reluctant to get involved in sports disputes.
According to Tom Evens, media economist at Ghent University, who predicts that Amazon could go next to Germany and Spain for sports rights, the tech giant’s online marketplace remains the focus because “Sport is not an end in itself, it’s just a means” . to be dominant in the e-commerce sector. ”
Shulman, the marketing professor, said there’s no direct link between sport and regulatory challenges, but the real issue is how the U.S. tech giant, which recently bought MGM, now controls the entire supply chain across multiple sectors.
“The more general question is how many industries will Amazon own from start to finish,” he said.
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