Manchester United Dreams of Mark Zuckerberg’s Billions

The pre-match build-up to the bidding for English Premier League TV rights is in full swing.

Soccer's bigwigs are betting that the next three-year broadcasting package will fetch even more than the current 5.1 billion pound ($6.9 billion) deal, most of which comes from the pockets of Rupert Murdoch-backed Sky Plc. They hope the content-hungry behemoths of Silicon Valley and Seattle will force the price to ever more ludicrous heights.

Much like a noisy Sky Sports ad promising a rollicking goal fest, Manchester United Plc's vice chairman Ed Woodward says upstart bidders such as Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix Inc. have their eyes on Europe's gilded football stars. "I think they'll enter the mix," he told analysts last week. "Anecdotally, there were strong interests in the last cycle. We're hearing that around the Premier League table but also… from a European perspective as well."

If there's one thing billionaire techies like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos love, though, it's data. And some of the viewing figures around English football look a little troubling. No-one's made money betting against the Premier League hype machine, but cool heads need to prevail even in a war for content.

Start with price. Assuming the new Premier League package costs 30 to 40 percent more—in line with recent inflation for leagues in Europe and the English lower-tier—that would add up to about 7 billion pounds.

Getting to such eye-watering levels would be a leap, even for Big Tech, whose sports bids have been a fraction of that. Facebook unsuccessfully offered $600 million for streaming rights to India's top cricket tournament. Amazon clinched a deal for the tennis ATP World Tour for a reported $13 million. Winning the English Premier League outright, while that may not be the goal, would cost about the same as Netflix's entire yearly content budget.

Are the rewards worth the fight? Gadfly colleagues Leila Abboud and Elaine He have done lots of work on the Premier League audience decline, even taking into account that people might be switching from TV to smartphone.

Pirate streams may be a factor. But young people seem less interested in traditional sport like soccer and NFL, as an abundance of options from TV boxsets and video games to Snapchat and e-Sports fight for their eyeballs. It would take a brave tech baron to test that trend with a multi-billion dollar investment, however rich they might be.

Traditional broadcasters and telecoms companies still seem resigned to paying what they must to keep hold of trophy assets. But they have advantages such as the ability to use content to cross-sell other services like broadband, boosting the return on investment, according to Erhan Gurses of Bloomberg Intelligence. Sky has the scale in pay-TV to spread the spiraling cost between 12 million customers.

Even for the Murdochs, you wonder whether there's a limit to how far they can go. Sky was pretty much built on the back of English football mania, but its managers are starting to talk up their other content such as original drama. 

Its share price had hit a four-year low before a full takeover bid from Murdoch's 21st Century Fox Inc. Losing the Premier League would look like an own goal, sure, but there's only so much cost you can strip out to pay the wages of Paul Pogba.

Who knows, maybe Woodward and his fellow football execs can swap Murdoch's billions for Zuckerberg's, or force up the price for the old guard. These guys know how to squeeze the most from a deal, with the threat of possible interlopers used as encouragement. But if there's a time to take a hard look at the return on sports investment, it's now. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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