Sky Sports’ Barney Francis: 'The Premier League has been at the core not just of Sky Sports’ success but of the whole company’s'

26 November 2018 | Broadcasting & New Media
Sky Sports’ Barney Francis: 'The Premier League has been at the core not just of Sky Sports’ success but of the whole company’s'
Sky Sports has been the market leader on the UK pay-TV scene for a generation, becoming a significant national cultural force in the process. Managing Director Barney Francis insists the broadcaster will continue to set the agenda.

The story of Sky Sports is the story of pay-TV’s success in the UK. The concept of subscription-based television took some time to gain traction with British consumers in the late 1980s and early 90s and when it did, it was premium sport – at least as much as exclusive first-run movies and niche entertainment – that had convinced people to stump up the additional cash.

Of course, getting the pay-TV model to pay its way is not always as simple as it looks. Both Sky Sports and the broader Sky TV platform it both sustains and is supported by have seen off their share of contenders. Now, though, after a generation in command of the high-end content market, a whole new set of rivals is emerging from different sectors in a rapidly changing environment.

As well as the cultural change that led the British public to believe paying for TV is worthwhile, Sky’s story also encompasses the many ways in which technology has shaped and responded to consumer behaviour. The company was the first mover in digital TV in the late 1990s, bringing a suite of interactive services to its coverage on the back of it. In the 2000s it incorporated DVR technology and later HD through its Sky+ boxes. Not every innovation set in – 3D was a notable dead end – but setting the pace in the viewing experience became a core part of the company’s identity, with sport often the most visible part of that strategy. 

In the past decade, changing tastes have been developed elsewhere. The rise of digital subscription services and mobile viewing, along with the appetite for time-shifted viewing that products like Sky+ had done much to engender, has transformed the job of broadcast media providers everywhere. Sky’s response came in two parts: its Sky Go streaming service launched in 2011 and Now TV – a pared-down, flexible non-contract means of accessing its channels – arrived the following year.

At Sky Sports, Barney Francis has been responsible for satisfying these changing tastes since 2009 when he replaced the late Vic Wakeling as Managing Director. After joining the network in 1999, he had already been a part of some of its most significant programming milestones – from its first exclusively live coverage of Test cricket in England to new landmarks in soccer coverage. But though his near decade-long tenure has been marked by further progress, Sky Sports’ dominance has come under consistent threat.

For much of that time the biggest domestic challenge has come from BT Sport, an upstart service launched as the former UK telecoms monopoly turned to high-end content as a means of selling its high-speed broadband. Unlike those rivals predating Francis’ time in charge – like the short-lived terrestrial platform ITV Digital and the British arm of Ireland’s Setanta Sports, which met an equally swift decline – BT Sport had the financial clout to properly trouble Sky Sports in bidding races. More to the point, it still exists.

Yet in spite of a flurry of rights coups – not least the long-term capture of UEFA Champions League and Europa League soccer – BT Sport has fallen back and consolidated its position in second place in the UK, with its parent deeming the gap to Sky as too big on which to risk an assault in the face of wider corporate difficulties. Instead, as viewer habits continue their evolution, what will likely exercise minds at Sky’s west London headquarters will be how to counter an emerging phalanx of digital-first operations: Netflix in the entertainment space and, in sport, Amazon Prime Video and dedicated players like Eleven Sports and DAZN – even if the latter is yet to arrive in the UK.

As sport moved deeper into the OTT era, Sky Sports made perhaps its most dramatic programming decision to date in the summer of 2017. In place of the numbered TV channels that had existed since its foundation came a series of single-sport, ‘vertical’ channels: Sky Sports Premier League, Sky Sports Football, Sky Sports Cricket and Sky Sports Golf, alongside the more generic Sky Sports Action and Sky Sports Main Event.

These ‘genre channels’ took their cue from Sky Sports F1 – which came into existence when world motorsport’s leading series debuted on the platform in 2012 – and from the ‘pop-up’ channels that had previously been created for the duration of events like golf’s Ryder Cup and Test cricket’s Ashes. Pricing was also adjusted to suit with viewers given the chance to subscribe only to the channels they wanted. A Sky Sports Mix channel had already been created for users who had only paid for the basic Sky package.

The point being emphasised to fans in the UK was clear: Sky Sports is still the destination for a range of the very best events available. And for all the hype that surrounds the Silicon Valley set, Francis (pictured below) is keen to remind the industry that his company – at a time when the wider group is set for a US$40 billion takeover by US media giant Comcast – retains the capacity for telling innovation. 

Was the channel repackage the end of a journey or the start of one?

I think as I look back and reflect, it was an obvious thing to do. It’s funny, I’ve just had a session with some of the Now TV guys, who asked me the same thing.

When I started this job nine years ago, we had three sports channels and we had a website, and that was pretty much it. Over time, obviously, we’ve increased the rights portfolio, etc, but back then – nine years ago, ten years ago, even 20 years ago – the way people consumed was obviously hugely different and we used to schedule Sky Sports largely around live events, and in between that we had expensively produced magazine programmes.

So I think as we looked at how consumption was changing, we looked at what our customers were saying, combined a lot of research and realised it was time to change and move into a new era. It’s probably the biggest change that we’ve ever launched, moving from numbered channels to genre channels.

What it helped us do was create instant clarity for our customers. It provided optionality as well, because you often hear that a fan of x sport doesn’t like to hear that they’re paying towards sport y. And it’s something that we learned from Sky Sports F1, really: we needed to offer up optionality so that those that wanted it all could have it all, and those that didn’t could dip in and have one channel, two channels, three channels, etc.

When we arrived on the plan it just seemed an obvious thing to do, and a year on we’ve had an incredible quarter of subscriber growth. Premier League viewing this year is up about 19 per cent, the [English] Football League is up 27 per cent, the Scottish Premiership is up 60 per cent. Now you can put all those down to lots of factors – certainly, in Scotland’s case, you can say that there’s been a real Steven Gerrard effect – but we also like to think that the clarity of the offering means that when people know there’s Premier League football on, they’re not going anywhere in search of it. When they know there’s a Football League game on, they know they don’t have to think, what channel is it going to be on? So it’s really allowed us to have clear scheduling principles, and then the customer offering is crisper and has more variety than ever before.

So we’re really happy a year on. The obvious test would be: would you go back? And I don’t think there’s one person in this big, broad organisation of ours that would contemplate that.

This is a time when there are a lot of different offerings emerging in the OTT space and when you also have tech companies coming in and providing services. But at Sky Sports you’re tethered to and supporting a broader entertainment platform. How does that factor into how you package your channels and how you address changes in viewer behaviour?

There’s a couple of things. Firstly, there’s always been competition, wherever that’s come from. In the early days, it was obviously from the free-to-air terrestrial channels, and then there were other pay-TV providers, going from ITV Digital through to Setanta and ESPN and BT, and of late you’re referring to the OTT offerings – in this country, Eleven and Amazon; elsewhere, DAZN across some of our other European territories. So there’s always been competition.

I do actually think what people don’t perhaps give us enough credit for is that we’ve been OTT for some time. Sky Go launched in 2011. Now TV launched as a transactional OTT offering in 2012. So we’ve actually been in this game of OTT for the last six years.

We know – firstly, broadly, as a multi-platform pay-television provider – how difficult it is to provide a constant service that fulfils your customers’ needs and to create a business out of that. And we also know how difficult it is to provide that volume of streams.

For Man United-Tottenham on Monday Night Football earlier in the season, when Tottenham won up at Old Trafford, that evening we had 900,000 concurrent streams across the Sky group. That includes Italy and Germany as well but the vast majority of those were in the UK. So as well as doing over two million on D2H [direct-to-home] through the set-top box, we also had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people watching that game through either Now TV or Sky Go.

So it’s not new to us, either the customer experience, the challenge of making multi-streams available and work without buffering issues, or also how you secure rights to enable you to exploit those rights on those platforms. None of it is new to us.

Obviously, we watch with interest how Amazon have done and how Eleven have done particularly, and we see the issues that they’ve had to confront. They’re not unusual in the area in which they work and we have obviously encountered those problems over the years – but, as I’ve said, we’ve been streaming since 2011 so we’ve got seven years’ worth of experience. We’ve anticipated it, because there’s always been competition and we know the problems that it can bring.

Does that speak as well to the positioning you need to create as an established media company, with the expertise that you have, in an era where newcomers from other sectors are coming in to try and offer similar services?

That’s absolutely right, and that’s the wealth of experience that we’ve built up. We are not just a D2H business, we are not just a broadband business, we’re not just a mobile business, and we’re not just a streaming business. We want to be in people’s homes providing different opportunities for them to engage with our content, whether that be sport or movies or entertainment, news, or any of the genres.

A long time ago, we moved away from just being a D2H subscriber business because we knew that the consumption habits of people were changing.

How important is it, then, to foster a cultural outlook within the company that doesn’t get wedded to a certain way of doing things if the market is going to move in a different way?

Don’t forget, across Europe, we employ something like 28,000 people so the simplest research we can ever do is internally. Of course we do customer research but every one of those 28,000 is a customer and we’re across every demographic, as you can imagine.

There are very simple questions that I might ask on a Monday of what my team have watched and how they watched it, what else is going on, and you get a really clear insight into people’s lives in 2018 Great Britain; what the challenges are in terms of keeping them watching content. So we’re pretty able, internally, to move with the times. As you would imagine, every one of those employees here is a media consumer of different things and they consume those things in different ways.

My habits are going to be very different to my colleague’s here, but the one thing that is certain is that we know we have to work as an organisation to provide alternatives for everybody – whether it’s on the bus to work or when you’re on a plane and you want to download stuff to your iPhone or your iPad, or whether you want to be sat in front of the telly with your mum and dad or up in your room in your student digs, etc, etc. We know that we have to cater for everybody.

 

Is it fair to say you were pretty satisfied with the Premier League rights outcome?

Yeah, we’re very happy. As always, we go into these things with a plan of what we want to achieve and we achieved that. We got the games we wanted in terms of the slots, we got the games we wanted in terms of the quality of the picks, and we got the volume.

Since Brussels intervened and put in a no-single-buyer rule, we’ve been successful in getting the maximum number of games every time. Our goal this time was to, while not being able to change the maximum, improve upon the quality of the games – and that’s exactly what we did. Obviously, the commercial side of things and the financial quantum is out in the public domain but, overall, we’re very, very happy with the outcome.

If there’s one thing that we love, it is providing the Premier League in all its colour and all its glory to our customers. How we contract with the Premier League and the commercials that go with that is the balance and the test that we put ourselves through. We’re very, very happy with the outcome.

You’re about nine years into this job now. What do you see as being your future in the role and what are you going to have to address in that future?

As I look out on the horizon, we’ve tied up Premier League, Football League, Formula One, ECB and various other rights for the long term. The challenge is how we’re going to bring those to our customers. That will be driven on the one hand by how we produce and market and publicise events, but also by the hardware with which they’re consumed.

I think that with Sky Q, [the company’s top-tier set-top box and viewing service] which launched a couple of years ago and just keeps getting better and better and better, there’s so much more that we can do there as a single platform on which you can consume in so many different ways. We watch with great interest what is happening with the other hardware providers, whether it be Apple or whoever. What’s the next iteration of the iPhone and is that going to have an impact on consumption?

I don’t think the world is going to get too much slower. I don’t think the fight for the attention of people’s eyeballs is going to get any easier. The one thing we do know is that we’ve got the backbone of rights that our customers see real value in, and if that’s the starting place then that’s a good place. It doesn’t mean that we let up at all – we know that we have to make viewing compelling and interesting and entertaining and informative and all of those things – but having those rights as a backbone is a good place to start.

What we do know is that a lot’s changed over the last nine years and it will certainly change a hell of a lot quicker over the next nine. And that’s why we wanted to position ourselves in the best place with these long-term rights deals.

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