Optus’ EPL plans will lead to short-term conversions and long-term resentment

AlexBy forcing English Premier League fans sign up to one of its packages Optus has got it horribly wrong and damaged its reputation in the process, argues Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes.

“Extortion”, “a gun to the head of fans” and “anti-competitive” are probably not the words Optus was hoping for when announcing its plans to broadcast the English Premier League.

But what did it expect when customers who currently pay $50-per-month to watch the league – and many other sports besides – are told they will have to pay at least $85 and switch to a service they may not want or be able to get?

I consider myself a pretty average football fan. I follow a team (Newcastle), sometimes stay up or get up early to watch games and always catch a highlights show.

When Optus took on the rights I kept an open mind in the hope that as a telco they’d find an innovative way for me to be able to access this content, as I wanted, and on the devices I wanted. I was very, very wrong.

After today’s announcement I won’t have access to the Premier League next season. You see, I have a phone through work with Telstra, and I’m six months in to a two-year home broadband deal with another provider. So taking out an Optus plan right now isn’t on my radar, which is a shame, because for the right service I would have been prepared to pay a reasonable extra subscription. Which leaves me in the wilderness.

Judging by the reaction on social media I’m not alone. You may remember Fox Sports fell foul of EPL fans when they lost the rights and suffered some pretty entertaining trolling. The same thing has already started for Optus:

optus facebook trolling EPL


facebook optus backlash epl


optus twitter screenshots

I could go on. While social media sentiment is not always an accurate barometer, the anecdotal feedback I’ve got from my EPL-watching friends suggests they’re all deeply unimpressed.


Of course it all comes back to economics, and when Optus announced it was paying $60m-plus per season for the rights, the market asked how Optus would make that pay.

One Mumbrella commenter has already done the back-of-an-envelope math: “$60m in rights. $85 minimum mobile or broadband spend x 12 months = $1020. That’s 58,800 approx new customers and doesn’t include any venue revenue or Fetch revenue.

“Of course, I think it’s a horrible idea to force sports fans to be telco customers. It’s not 2005 anymore.”

Another countered, saying it’s 29,000 they need because it’s a three-year-deal and most contracts are two-year fixed terms.

My gut tells me it’s somewhere in between those numbers, although both fail to take into account the millions of dollars the telco has spent in trying to develop workable apps to deliver this service at scale, and will need to invest to get the right content and to provide a decent, 24/7 dedicated football channel with at least a sprinkling of local programming.

As I understand it, the Optus team went on tour to try to figure out how to make the apps work, and they are still a work in progress with the season set to kick off in August.

It’s unclear whether those apps will have the facility to stream content to big screens, or whether most of the people watching EPL for the next three seasons will be doing it on – at best – 13 inch screens.

For non-customers hoping they can get access by signing up to Fetch TV – I’m afraid you’re shit out of luck as well.

Optus confirmed these non-customers will also need to take out some kind of Optus plan and then get the new device they are offering to sit on top of their box, and pay an additional $5 per month for that. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through for all but the most dedicated fans.

And there’s still no confirmation as to how it will be broadcast to pubs and clubs, with Optus encouraging them to get in touch to discuss their options. But you can bet it’ll be another hefty fee on top of those they pay for Fox Sports. Drinks prices for those dedicated supporters’ clubs that meet up every week to cheer on their team may be getting hiked up.

A nail in the coffin for anti-siphoning?

Fox Sports logo

Today’s announcement could also be seen as a blow for Fox Sports owner News Corp’s push to have the government dramatically reduce the anti-siphoning list – some 1,900 sporting events that must have at least some free-to-air presence to be screened.

The EPL is one of the few sports not on the anti-siphoning list.

But by creating a closed ecosystem reliant entirely on streaming in a country where internet speeds are at best questionable, Optus has arguably given the free-to-air networks ammunition in its arguments not to cut it back, or indeed make these laws even more draconian.

While AFL and NRL will probably always have a free-to-air presence there’s nothing stopping the likes of Optus from snaffling those rights. As the law stands it basically only stops Foxtel taking them as a single entity. Just imagine if this deal had happened for the Australian Open tennis or V8 Supercars? Fans were vocal enough when the majority of the motorsport went to Fox Sports but for something like this there’d be full on revolt and talk of breakaway leagues.

Of course SBS has secured one game per week as a result of this deal, but it’s a long time between drinks in a 20-team league to see your team play live.

With the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter taking a more active interest in sports rights around the world I can see access rules being tightened up even more in the future, or at least having a genuine linear broadcast TV element built in. It’s genuinely something Aussies would turn out and vote about.

A PR disaster

One angry fan described it as a #marketingfail

One angry fan described it as a #marketingfail

I’m pretty sure that with this deal Optus will make their money back by converting enough subscribers amongst die-hard fans.

The issue is the type of business they’re winning. No-one likes feeling like they are having their hand forced, especially when it comes to something they are passionate about, like sport. While Fox Sports had the monopoly on the sport before that at least came with a slew of other channels and attractions for its $50 fee, and was broadcast on the big screen.

For a minimum $85 per month people will be getting an internet or mobile provider that may be very far from their first choice, but lumping them for the footy.

If Optus had come up with another subscription service for people to stream the sport through and provided a good experience they would undoubtedly have achieved bigger pick-up and also given themselves an incredible marketing channel to convert those customers and make them long-term brand loyalists.

As things stand the telco has a lot of work to do in terms of getting the service up to the standard people will expect for the $85 paid to make them happy.

If Optus fails to retain the rights in three year’s time expect to see a lot of churn from their services after that.

Alex Hayes is the editor of Mumbrella

Sports broadcasting will be on the agenda when Mumbrella’s Sports Marketing Summit comes to Sydney on July 28. See the program so far and book tickets by clicking the banner below.

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