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The costs of winning an auction: The case of live TV rights

Most observers were once again left stunned by how much media companies are willing to pay to secure the rights to broadcast live games in the English Premier League (EPL). At the same time the method used to sell those rights is being investigated by Ofcom following complaints made by Virgin Media. Virgin Media actually requested that the auction was halted until the investigation was completed.

Between them, BSkyB and BT Sport have paid £5.136bn to purchase the rights to broadcast live matches in the EPL over a three-year period beginning in the 2016–17 season. This is a 71% increase in the price paid for the previous three-year deal which runs from 2013 to 2016 and cost £3.018bn. However, the headline figure hides some big differences between the amounts paid by the two companies.

How exactly are the rights sold? The broadcast rights for the 168 live matches are split up into seven different packages labelled A through to G and are placed in seven different auctions. The type of auction used by the EPL is a sealed bid auction. Interested companies are invited to make an offer for any of the packages. However, when they make a bid they do not know (a) if other firms have also made a bid and (b) the size of any other bids. Another constraint is that one firm is not allowed to win more than five of the auctions. When the auction finishes the EPL only releases information about the winning offers. It never provides information about any of the failed bids.

Some of the packages are worth more than others to the broadcasters. The first five packages (A–E) each contain the rights for 28 games per season, while the other two packages (F and G) contain the rights for 14 matches. In some of the packages all of the games kick off at the same time and on the same day. For example all 28 games in package ‘A’ kick off at 12.30pm on a Saturday. Others contain more of a mixture. Some of the games in Package E take place on a Monday evening. while others take place on a Friday evening. Given the potential advertising revenue and number of viewers, the most valuable package is D, which has 28 games that kick off at 4.00pm on a Sunday.

Another factor that influences the value of a package is the number of ‘first picks’. In any given week, more than one broadcaster might want to screen the same match. To overcome this problem, each package is allocated a number of first, second, third, fourth and fifth ‘picks’. For example, package D comes with 18 first and 10 fourth round picks. This means that whichever company wins this package will get first choice on the games they want to broadcast on 18 occasions a year. Package C contains no ‘first picks’ but offers 15 second, 4 fourth and 7 fifth round picks. There is also a maximum and a minimum limit on the number of times games including a specific team can be broadcast.

BSkyB won the auctions for packages A, C, D, E and G for a price of £4.17bn. This means that it will be paying £1.396bn to broadcast 126 live games per season. This is an average payment of £11,031,700 per game. In the previous deal it paid £760million for the rights to broadcast 116 live games per season. This is an average payment of £6,551,724 per game. The new deal represents a cost increase of 68% per game. However, the number of first picks BskyB has secured in the new deal increases from 20 to 26.

BTSport won the auctions for packages B and F for a price of £960m. This means that it will be paying £320m for the rights to broadcast 42 live games per season. This is an average payment of £7,619,048 per game. In the previous deal it paid £246 million per year for the rights to broadcast 38 live games per season. This is an average payment of £6,473,684 per game. The new deal represents an increase in costs of 17.7% per game for BT Sport – a much lower figure than for BSkyB.

BSkyB has stated that it will cover the increase in the price it has paid for the rights with efficiency savings. However, many observers believe that it will ultimately result in significant increases in the subscription rates for SkySports. The impact of the deal on BskyB’s profit may well depend on the willingness of its customers to pay higher prices. What is the price elasticity of demand for SkySports at the current subscription rates they are charging?

There is still some uncertainty about the deal following Ofcom’s decision to investigate the legitimacy of the method used by the EPL to auction the rights. Virgin Media made a formal complaint in September 2014 about the collective selling of the live broadcast rights and argued that it was in breach of competition law. The investigation by Ofcom will make a judgment about whether the joint selling of the rights by the EPL is a contravention of Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and/or Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. An initial announcement will be made in March.

Premier League set to announce record £4.4bn TV rights deal BBC Sport (10/2/15)
Premier League TV rights: What does deal mean for fans & clubs BBC Sport, Ben Smith (11/2/15)
How Sky paid £4m more per Premier League match than BT The Telegraph, Ben Rumsby (11/2/15)
Premier League TV deal: Windfall must benefit grass roots and England The Telegraph, Henry Winter (10/2/15)
Sky and BT retain Premier League TV rights for record £5.14bn The Guardian, Owen Gibson (10/2/15)
Premier League TV rights: Sky Sports and BT Sport win UK broadcasting rights as price tops £5billion Independent, Tom Peck (10/2/15)

Questions

  1. Draw a demand curve for package A and package D of the live broadcast rights. Which one do you think will be furthest to the right? Explain your answer.
  2. What are the potential benefits to the EPL of not revealing the details of any of the losing bids?
  3. Explain how the price elasticity of demand is a useful concept for assessing the impact of the new deal on the profits of BSkyB and BTSport.
  4. Given the impact of the new deal of the size of Parachute payments, what impact might it have on the level of competitive balance in the Championship?
  5. Find out the key provisions of Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
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