Webs watching bottom lines more than ever

MADRID — Spain’s 4-0 thrashing of Italy Sunday brought down the curtain on an UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament underscoring that live sports remain the TV ratings king.

But European broadcasters are now questioning whether it’s worth stumping up the huge sums required to hold that throne.

The 24-day event, hosted by Ukraine and Poland, rewrote the history books several times over.

Watched by 18.1 million viewers for an 83.3% share, Spain’s June 27 semi-final penalty shoot-out with Portugal became the most-watched TV broadcast in Spanish history.

Extra time against Portugal (16.5 million/77.1%) and the Spain-Italy final (15.5 million/83.4%) ranked second and third.

In Germany, ZDF’s broadcast of the final achieved record ratings for a non-German match: 20.31 million/56.2%.

The July 28 semi-final on fellow pubcaster ARD, in which Italy beat Germany, set a new tournament record: 28 million viewers/76.8%.

Gallic commercial web M6 drew its second-best ratings ever for Sweden-France: 12.2 million/44.5%.

In Italy, the Euro 2012 final pulled an 83.7% share on pubcaster RAI, drawing 23 million viewers during the first half, when Spain scored the first two goals. That share dropped in the second half to a still whopping 21 million for 79.6%, as it became clear that Italy didn’t stand a chance.

While not a record-breaker, the Italian ratings are particularly impressive since RAI, which held exclusive rights to Euro 2012 in Italy, encrypted the matches on satellite so that subscribers to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox who do not have a so-called digital key were unable to watch them on their set-top boxes.

In the U.K., the Spain-Italy final was carried on pubcaster BBC and commercial rival ITV. The Beeb won hands down, averaging 12.3 million viewers during the game, compared with two million on ITV. Audience total was on a par with 2004, but up on 2008’s 10.6 million.

But, while TV ratings soared, analysts doubt any major broadcaster turned a profit save for ITV.

“Big live events are a ratings king but not an immediate moneymaker,” said analyst Daniel Knapp at IHS-Screen Digest.

“It’s the paradox of an increasingly fragmented television landscape: The ability to draw really mass audiences is progressively being reduced to high public-attention talent shows or sports events, but monetization isn’t immediate.”

Even in Spain, where Mediaset Espana paid south of €70 million ($88.2 million) for the whole of Euro 2012, the broadcast group could still lose $10 million-$20 million, said one analyst.

Traditionally, when broadcasting big soccer matches, profits haven’t been the point.

Having exclusive Euro 2012 rights boosted RAI’s role as a pubcaster that delivers the goods Italians pay a license fee for.

For commercial broadcasters, big matches are brand enhancement. In France, M6 paid about $25 million for 10 matches and snagged about $15.1 million in TV ads, per French financial daily Les Echos.

“M6 positioned itself as an important general entertainment channel by taking big audience shares and advertisers took note,” said Philippe Nouchi at Publicis-owned media research company VivaKi. “It will pay off in the long run.”

But if soccer TV rights are a loss-leader, TV operators are now trying to cut their losses.

Shared rights arrangements — the BBC and ITV in the U.K., M6 and TF1 in France — are now common.

France’s TF1 and M6 paid around $25.2 million each for Euro 2012 games, well down on the $63 million they each paid in 2008, whey they reportedly lost about $38 million and $25.2 million respectively, Les Echos noted.

In Spain, Mediaset Espana paid no more for Euro 2012 than Euro 2008. Spanish TV rights to 2014’s FIFA World Cup still remain open.

“Broadcasting soccer games of this level is a very good brand boost, it’s undeniable,” Laurent-Eric LeLay, TF1 sports rights acquisition topper, told Variety.

“But should we accept losing money on soccer rights because it benefits our image? The answer is: Not in the current economic context.”

Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Elsa Keslassy in Paris, Ed Meza in Berlin and Leo Barraclough in London contributed to this report.

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