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Optus joins media battle with Premier League rights

Australian telco Optus has outbid pay TV giant Foxtel and won the rights to broadcast the next three seasons of the English Premier League.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Optus has won the exclusive Australian broadcast rights to the English Premier League for the next three seasons beginning August 2016, taking the most-watched football league worldwide away from pay TV provider Foxtel's Fox Sports.

In what CEO Allen Lew called "a great win", the telecommunications carrier has the rights to live broadcast all 380 Premier League games in every season until mid-2019 across home broadband and mobile, with Lew saying it confirms Optus' commitment to providing streaming and media content.

"This is another significant step in our strategy to become a mobile-led multimedia company," the chief executive said on Monday morning.

"We are dedicated to delivering the best domestic and international entertainment for our customers. With 930 million followers worldwide, the Premier League is one of the most sought-after sports properties for content providers."

Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore welcomed the undisclosed successful bid from Optus, saying he is looking forward to working with a "multifaceted" telco.

"We are extremely pleased that Optus has chosen to invest in our broadcasting rights for the three seasons 2016/17 to 2018/19," Scudamore said.

"They have an excellent track record as a multifaceted telecommunications company in Australia, and we look forward to working with them to make all the best Premier League content available to our fans across the country."

Lew had told ZDNet earlier this year that Optus developed a three-year strategy for media and entertainment.

"I think you've seen us starting to move away from being very mobile focused to one that is about integrating communications and entertainment for customers, regardless of where they are," he said.

Lew, who said he is an avid viewer of the English Premier League, noted that in the US, customers are now paying directly for sports subscriptions, rather than signing up for pay TV.

"A lot of these sporting codes are going direct to customers. The most advanced market for that is the US. You don't have to have a paid subscription to watch those sports in the US," he said.

"I think that is going to disrupt the pay TV model."

Optus offered unmetered access to Netflix from its launch date in a bid to secure more customers, and last month announced that it will also be throwing a free six-month Netflix subscription into its entertainment bundles for home broadband customers. The bundles include unlimited data and unlimited national landline calls, as well as the Optus TV 1TB set-top box with Fetch.

"Customers tell us they want an easy and flexible streaming experience that allows them to watch what they want and how they want, without the worry of frustrating data limits," said Vicki Brady, MD of Marketing and Product at Optus.

The six-month Netflix subscription will be automatically added on to customers who sign up for any of Optus' three entertainment bundles, which start at AU$90 per month, between November 2 and January 31.

Partnering with Netflix was a straightforward choice for Optus, Lew said in April.

"Entertainment was the low-hanging fruit," he said.

"Pay TV penetration is low -- 30 percent. We think there is opportunity for 70 percent of homes, particularly those who are not big sports fans, to come up with a much stronger media package that is about video on demand.

"That's what we've done with Fetch box and integrating Netflix into the Fetch box."

When contacted, Optus declined to say whether the Premier League content would be provided on its Fetch Optus TV platform, or to clarify the subscription cost.

Optus' parent company Singtel had previously won the rights to air three seasons of the Premier League in 2013 in Singapore on its pay TV offering; however, it was ordered by content regulator Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) to share the rights with rival telco StarHub's own pay TV platform.

MDA forced Singtel to share the content under Singapore's cross-carriage rule, which directs pay TV providers to carry each other's content in order to prevent prices from being driven higher through a lack of competition between the two providers.

The regulation had been passed in July 2011 as a consequence of Singtel securing exclusive rights to broadcast three seasons of the Premier League back in 2010, resulting in subscription costs being driven up for consumers.

Euro 2012 was then shared between both pay TV operators as a result of this regulation, despite StarHub winning the exclusive rights at the time.

"Following a thorough examination of the agreement between Singtel and FAPL [Football Assocation Premier League], and the information provided by Singtel and relevant parties, MDA concluded that the agreement contained certain clauses which prevent or restrict, or are likely to prevent or restrict, the same content from being acquired or otherwise obtained for transmission on selected platforms in Singapore by other pay-TV retailers," MDA said in a statement in April 2013.

"These restrictions therefore trigger the cross-carriage measure, which became effective on August 1, 2011 ... pay TV retailers that have acquired any exclusive content ... must widen the distribution of such content by offering it to other subscribers."

The Singapore government rejected Singtel's appeals on the matter, ordering Singtel to cross-carry its EPL content with StarHub.

StarHub then began offering a SG$30 a month rebate to customers, capped at a total of SG$600, for fans who cross-carry the content on both platforms. The resulting price for StarHub customers was SG$29.90 a month to subscribe to Premier League content.

In New Zealand, IPTV provider Coliseum won the broadcast rights to the Premier League in June 2013, similarly taking them off pay TV provider Sky TV.

Telco Spark then purchased 50 percent of Coliseum in December 2014 to broadcast the Premier League through joint venture Lightbox Sport from mid-2015 for a subscription cost of NZ$200 per season.

"This partnership looks to simplify the crowded online TV marketplace. By joining forces, we will be giving customers a greater breadth and depth of choice and a more compelling viewing experience," said Lightbox CEO Kym Niblock.

"Both Lightbox and Coliseum Sports Media already give Kiwis greater choice over how they watch TV online, and both have proven the ability to secure top quality content -- but together, our combined buying power will make us an even more formidable force in the market."

Optus' main rival, incumbent telco Telstra, has also been making moves into the media industry by launching its video-streaming device Telstra TV to provide home broadband customers with access to streaming services Netflix, Presto, and Stan; as well as catch-up services SBS on Demand, Plus7, and 9Jumpin.

Joe Pollard, who was recently promoted to the role of chief marketing officer and group executive of Media at Telstra, outlined plans to become a media company as well as a telco.

"The next wave of media ecosystem disruption is coming from telcos and media companies coming together," she said.

"They're beginning to integrate, be overtaken by each other, so what we are seeing is the need for world-class content with world-class distribution mechanisms -- ie, the power of a great network -- and scale to deliver the next wave of shareholder value. So what we're seeing around the world is telcos becoming media companies, and media companies becoming telcos."

The Premier League deal is a timely triumph for Optus, which has been facing increasing competition on both mobile and fixed-line fronts, with M2 Group announcing plans in September to merge with fibre infrastructure company Vocus Communications to form the fourth-largest telco in Australia, and Vodafone Australia following with news that it had signed a AU$1 billion deal with TPG for mobile services.

The Vodafone-TPG deal will see TPG's 320,000 mobile customers moved from Optus' mobile network across to Vodafone, with customers being offered bonus data as an incentive to move networks.

Optus has denied that the deal would affect it to a large extent, and merely said that it is in discussions with TPG on future plans, and regardless continues to be a primary mobile network provider in the space.

"Optus remains the leading wholesale service provider in the market," an Optus spokesperson said.

"We are currently working with the TPG Group on revised wholesale arrangements, but expect to be a continuing wholesale provider to the TPG Group in the future."

Optus added that it cannot discuss its own wholesale arrangements with TPG due to contractual obligations, but said that it welcomes the increased competition and remains confident that customers will choose the Optus mobile network.

"Optus' national mobile network offers differentiation to other market participants," the spokesperson said.

"We respect TPG's decision to work with other providers, and welcome the opportunity to compete for customers based on our reliable network coverage, first-rate service, and compelling plans."

Optus encouraged any TPG customers who would prefer to remain on the Optus network rather than be moved across to Vodafone's network to get in contact, though they would need a new SIM in order to stay.

TPG's deal with Vodafone follows its acquisition of rival telco iiNet earlier this year in a deal worth around AU$1.5 billion, wherein TPG paid AU$9.55 per iiNet share, incorporating a AU$8.80 cash or scrip consideration and AU$0.75 cash per share.

The acquisition will see TPG overtake Optus in customer numbers as a fixed-line provider.

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