Arnaud Simon in a Sport Business Interview talks about International Swimming League launching an OTT service

International Swimming League won’t delay D2C platform despite Covid-19 pandemic Frank Dunne May 15, 2020

Nascent league to push ahead with launch this autumn

Reaction from broadcasters ‘positive’ after first season

Single-venue 2020 competition enables ISL to maximise exclusive content opportunities

The International Swimming League is working on two fronts to increase exposure and engagement levels ahead of its second season. It is in renewal talks with many of the broadcasters who covered the league’s inaugural season, while pushing ahead with the development of its own direct-to-consumer OTT platform.

But despite the multiple challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic, the league – which launched last year – has not considered delaying the OTT launch. Arnaud Simon, chief executive of In&OutStories, the ISL’s media rights consultancy partner, told SportBusiness Media: “We waited for the first season to end before looking at an OTT launch as we wanted to build relationships with traditional broadcasters.

“But waiting any longer is not an option. I firmly believe that we are shifting from a TV-centric model to a digital-centric model. You have to have a direct-to-fans offering. This is something that sports organisations can no longer delegate to a third party. There have been some bad experiences in OTT delivery. You need to test and learn.”

While ISL will continue to seek broadcast exposure and use social media platforms to help drive awareness and engagement, owning the data that comes from operating an OTT service is business-critical to any sports venture, Simon said. “You have to know your fans so you can serve them better, not only in terms of content but in terms of services, ticketing and merchandising. For the fan, it’s a journey from being a viewer to a subscriber to a member.”

The OTT platform will be global, with content determined on a market-by-market basis. It almost certainly will not include live coverage of races in markets where there is live coverage in a traditional broadcast deal. It will contain both free and pay tiers. Creating a high-quality OTT product with a robust technical platform that can handle large numbers of concurrent streams or large numbers of people trying to subscribe at the last minute is expensive and it will take time for the platform to be profitable on a standalone basis.

ISL is handling the production of the service, with US video operator Vimeo providing the streaming platform and the IMG agency delivering most of the other technical services. “The basic feed is produced by ISL itself,” Simon said. “It’s critical right now for a sports organisation to have full control of the feed. Yes, it’s an investment and costs a lot of money, but it’s your own IP. If you want to distribute it in many ways, you have to be in control of it, rather than having it produced by a broadcaster.”

Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin set up the league and is funding it with an initial $20m (€18.5m). About $4m is thought to have been earmarked for broadcast production, with at least $7m allocated to prize money for teams and swimmers.

The proliferation of direct-to-consumer OTT sports platforms is leading to a rapid fragmentation of the market. This is already creating ‘subscription fatigue’ in many sports fans who increasingly need to have multiple payment relationships if they want to watch a variety of sport. But Simon argues that this is a transitional phase before a new wave of content aggregation begins. For this reason, it is also essential that the production standards and overall quality of the product are the highest possible. “When you think about fragmentation, don’t just think about tomorrow, think about the day after tomorrow. That’s the aggregation time and your product must be attractive enough to be aggregated, so you can be in the shop window. If, in a second stage, you want your app to be aggregated in a super digital shopping mall, much bigger than you, you need to be already well down that road. Your digital proposition must be ready, both in terms of content and in terms of technology. If I can use an analogy: If you’re still putting your music out on vinyl only, you can’t be on Spotify"

Inaugural season

The ISL’s first season took place across seven cities between October 5 and December 21. The series was shown across Europe and Asia-Pacific, excluding Australia, by pan-regional sports broadcaster Eurosport. Eurosport also took on the distribution of global media rights beyond its territories, with the exception of the US and Australia. This agreement was for 2019 and 2020, with the possibility of a renegotiation of terms between the two seasons. That negotiation is under way and has been extended due to the health crisis. ISL has also been talking directly to broadcasters to gauge feedback to 2019 and assess appetite for 2020 and beyond.

The cumulative audience reach across broadcast and streaming platforms was 50 million unique viewers, with social media platforms delivering 100 million impressions. Engagement levels were high. On ESPN, viewers stayed on average for 50 minutes of the two hours each event lasts.

Simon said that although ISL was a challenger series in need of exposure, it had not looked for visibility at any cost on any platform. It would only work with blue-chip broadcasters. “Our strategy for the first season was for the league to be associated with super-established broadcaster brands,” he said. “We had the option to go fully digital from day one. But we thought it was important to benefit, not just from their exposure, but the expertise they can bring.” Most of the deals were for one year with a window of negotiation for further seasons. Few, if any, are thought to have involved a rights fee. Simon said that most of the broadcast deals had been very positive – “the broadcasters were really happy about the product we delivered” – and in a normal situation the deals would be renewed. However, the pandemic had complicated the picture and slowed down negotiations. “Obviously, we have had to put a lot of discussions on hold. It’s difficult for broadcasters to make projections,” he said.

Adapting to circumstances

The league has not been as badly affected as many other sports competitions. Its first season was completed long before the pandemic started and its second season gets under way after the worst is expected to be over. But it is not untouched. The original plan for season two had involved 27 stages, starting in Europe in September and ending up with the finals in the US in April. This has now been reduced to a one-off tournament taking place over five weeks between October and November, probably in Australia, and behind closed doors. “This is the beauty of ISL and new leagues in general, that you can be agile and adapt in these situations,” Simon said. “A new league can quickly re-shape their plans and deliver innovative products maybe quicker than more established leagues.” The ISL is looking at how to benefit from having all the athletes together in a single place through the creation of additional exclusive content to populate the OTT service. This could include live practice sessions, behind-the-scenes footage and fly-on-the-wall documentary formats. “Having a hub or camp, creates a fantastic content playground. ISL is all about getting to know the swimmers in a different way, their personalities. Imagine having access to the Olympic Village? That’s that we want to build. To allow fans to live with the swimmers on a daily basis.” Simon added: “We’re going to try to take advantage of the constraints.”

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