Soccer is the dominant sport in Germany, but a new event has been captivating everyone’s attention.
It’s called “hardball” — as in the increasingly bitter battles over broadcasting rights being fought among the major German pubcasters and commercial webs, as well as paybox Premiere, for ever-more popular live sporting events.
Whether they’re going bare knuckles over rights for the Bundesliga (Germany’s primary soccer league), heavyweight boxing, handball or cross-country skiing, webs in Germany have been waging increasingly acrimonious fights and forking over some serious coin to get the content they’re after.
“The viewers are fixated at the moment on live sport coverage and are not necessarily interested in the background sports stories or documentary material,” says ZDF sports topper Dieter Gruschwitz, whose web has greatly expanded its live coverage of second-tier sports to pad the possible hard landing that would come if ever forced to pull out of the bidding for soccer. “That’s been great for our ratings.”
Pubcasters ZDF and ARD recently completed tortuously long 18-month negotiations with the sports rights agency Sportfive to broadcast 27 of next summer’s 31 Euro 2008 matches in Austria and Switzerland — where Germany ranks high among the pretournament favorites. They will pay a reported €115 million ($162 million), far less than the $225 million that was being demanded. Under massive pressure from politicos and a public wary of further increases in mandatory viewer fees, ARD and ZDF had to play hardball, and the talks lasted far longer than anywhere else in Europe.
“The difficult negotiations of the last year and a half have paid off,” ZDF topper Markus Schaechter said after winning Euro 2008 from commercial web RTL (which hoped for some of the event). “We’ve secured the rights for the top soccer highlight of 2008 for a responsible price.”
But RTL sharply criticized the pubcasters, with a spokesman saying, “The true pay TV in Germany has triumphed” — a scathing attack that reminded everyone of the fact that monthly pubcaster viewer fees have climbed toward the same levels as pay TV subscriptions.
The spokesman said the winning price could never be recouped in ad revenues. “It’s a farce to say that they’re being a good steward of mandatory viewer fees.”
ZDF, which has also tussled with RTL over heavyweight boxing rights, called RTL a “poor loser.”
The battle for the next round of Bundesliga rights have only just begun to warm up. With soccer’s popularity enjoying a major upswing in the wake of the successful German-hosted 2006 World Cup and ratings for Germany’s matches regularly in the stratosphere, the bidding for Bundesliga rights for the next three-year period beginning in 2009 are set to kick off in November. Everyone expects there to be blood on the floor by the time it finishes.
After Premiere lost those rights to German cabler Unitymedia in 2005 — a shocking defeat that sent its share price plunging — before recovering those rights this season, the price for the next three years is expected to exceed the $140 million per season of the current three-year deal.
Premiere has expressed willingness to pay more — but at a price: greater exclusivity. It wants to push the free TV broadcasts for post-match highlights that ARD currently holds back well beyond the current start time at 6:30 p.m. — about 75 minutes after the final whistle — to 10 p.m., in order to force soccer-mad locals to subscribe to Premiere for the fuller, earlier coverage.
That trick backfired on Premiere in 2005, in part because the clubs’ sponsors were opposed to free TV coverage being squeezed into latenight. Unitymedia won the 2007-09 rights with the hopes of launching a rival pay TV channel, but the venture proved too costly after just one year on the air.
Finding a solution and the right price will be a difficult balancing act, especially as Premiere is expected to face a number of competing bidders. Last month, Sportfive announced it was looking to enter the fray for the Bundesliga rights. German media reports have said that even 80-year-old magnate Leo Kirch might be exploring a bid to get the Bundesliga rights back.
It’s more than soccer in Germany, however. The competition for rights for boxing and other second-tier sports also has heated up. The entire boxing world was hoping for a match to unify two world heavyweight titleholders in two different championships — IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine and WBA belt holder Nikolay Valuev of Russia. But it was not going to happen because of a battle between two German webs: RTL had a deal for Klitschko’s fights, and ARD held the rights to Valuev.
“Our managements would have to reach an agreement,” says Valuev, who, like Klitschko and many top boxers, trains in Germany. “A stumbling block would be the TV stations. Klitschko is with RTL, and I am with ARD. They would have to find a solution.”
The two webs didn’t reach an agreement on the fight between Klitschko and Valuev, who is called the “beast from the East” because he is over 7 feet tall, before Valuev lost his crown in an upset to Rusland Chagaev of Uzbekistan in the spring.