SVG Sit-Down: Eleven Sports Managing Director Danny Menken on the Launch of America’s Newest Sports Network
Inside the launch of Eleven Sports in 50M+ homes and what the network’s strategy is moving forward
This month, Eleven Sports officially launched in the U.S. after acquiring certain distribution assets from struggling ONE World Sports. Eleven Sports, which debuted in 2015, already operates multiple linear channels and streaming platforms in Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland, Singapore, and Taiwan. The company enters the U.S. market with a fully rebranded cable channel available in 50 million U.S. homes through carriage deals with AT&T, DirecTV, Verizon, Charter, and NCTC.
SVG sat down with Eleven Sports Network Group Managing Director Danny Menken to discuss why the company opted to enter the U.S. market after focusing primarily on tier-two global markets. He also discussed Eleven’s programming and rights-acquisition strategy, how the company will handle production and marketing in the U.S., the potential launch of an OTT platform here, whether the distribution-assets deal impacts unpaid ONE World Sports staffers, and how Eleven plans to weather the perceived storm approaching for niche cable networks.
Why does expanding into the U.S. through acquisition of ONE World Sports’ distribution assets make sense for Eleven Sports?
Our strategy has been that we enter tier-two markets where we can buy the key tier-one assets. For example, in Poland, we have Bundesliga, La Liga, Formula One. In Belgium, we have La Liga and NBA. And we recently launched on cable in Taiwan and bought the World Baseball Classic and Lamigo Monkeys, which is the top local baseball team. This is what we normally do.
Obviously, the U.S. is a very, very big market, and it was on our wish list for sure. We expected to enter the market later by starting from the bottom with a digital platform instead of cable distribution. But we got the opportunity to buy this distribution, and, for us, it represented an immediate, great way to enter the market. We see a lot of opportunities there. We will not [pursue] tier-one rights and, instead, will focus much more on tier-two rights, which are currently hardly distributed in the U.S. but there is quite a large [fanbase] who want to see these events. It’s more niche, but, because of the size of the groups interested in these niches, [the market] is still big enough.
What kind of live sports rights will Eleven Sports pursue in growing your content portfolio in the U.S.?
Last week, we were at Sportel Miami, which is the key market to buy rights [in the U.S.], and we had a lot of very positive discussions with rightsholders. They all very much welcome us. They see what we have done in other markets and believe in the value we will add to the U.S. So, we will [target] emerging and established sports focused on the millennial generation. We just started with Twenty20 cricket from Dubai and will have some more cricket. We’re also looking to ice hockey, basketball, darts, and drone racing, as well as college sports like rugby, football, and soccer. There are quite a lot of sports we are looking at.
We’re working out our content strategy and expect that to be finalized in the coming weeks. Our idea is to also launch blocks [of programming]: for example, a block focused on cycling content on a daily or almost daily basis. We would like also to start with some kids sport content.
How are you looking to build Eleven Sports’ digital presence beyond just the linear channel into a multiplatform sports destination?
Our strategy in every market is to buy rights exclusively and distribute non-exclusively. For us, the fan is central and needs to be able to see [our content] when they want, how they want, and wherever they want. So we want to be on every platform. Of course, the affiliates are key for us in most of our markets. But, at the same time, we want to make sure that people who have been cord-cutting are able to get our channels by any other means. This could be via our own OTT platform, which we are definitely looking into, or via other OTT platforms we’re working with. For example, in the States, we also work with FuboTV.
Do you plan to launch a full production facility in the U.S. to produce Eleven Sports programming?
In every market we enter, we have a fully decentralized operation, meaning that we will have local production, local marketing, and local sales in the U.S. We believe in the value of being completely localized. At the moment, we are finalizing a deal with a production center. I can’t tell too much about it now, but we will be able to announce it in the coming weeks.
As a newcomer to the U.S. market, how do you plan to market the Eleven Sports brand to reach the niche sports fan and millennial audiences you’re targeting?
We have proven in other markets that we are successful in reaching out to the fans. For example, in Poland, when we entered the market, everybody told us there were already enough established sports broadcasters and there was no way we could build a good business there. Now,18 months later, we are number one in the country and, last year, won the award as Broadcaster of the Year after just 12 months in operation. It shows that we are able to deliver the quality of the products tailored to the needs of the local fans, as well as build a brand in a very short time frame.
How do we do it? First of all, by engaging fans. We do that by using social and interacting with the fans. A lot of established brands say that they engage with fans, but, normally, it’s always one-way traffic: the brand is just sending, not receiving feedback. But we really listen to our fans and involve them in our decision-making in terms of the kind of rights we add and matches we [air]. In most countries, we have regular polls where we ask people what they want us to air. We will do that in the States. We really believe in digital engagement and also in cooperation with all the major U.S. sports platforms. In all the other markets, we are working with all the major sport-news websites, publishers, etc., and we’re intending to do the same in the U.S.
Eleven Sports arrives at an interesting time for the U.S. cable industry, as niche cable networks are struggling to survive. Why do you think Eleven Sports can buck this trend and succeed?
First of all, we believe, because we have a global footprint, we are a very interesting partner for rightsholders to work with. We know the industry very well; we have a very good network, which means that we are always able to get the best rights for the best prices. There are definitely synergies in having a global network.
It’s also important to note that we work very lean and mean. Where other networks need 200 people to run one channel, we do it with 15. And yet we are winning the awards for being the best broadcaster. It also shows that you don’t need all these people to run a high-quality channel.
[In the U.S.], we start with a significant distribution, in 50 million households. As long as we are able to manage our cost and make sure that the revenues are there and we are growing, I’m sure we are fine.
In acquiring ONE World Sports’ distribution assets in the U.S., does Eleven Sports have any obligation to staffers and freelancers who have yet to be paid by OWS for services rendered?
No. We have nothing to do with [ONE World Sports]. The only thing I can say is, we bought certain distribution assets from them and that’s it. People that have issues with [OWS] have to contact [its] management, but we have no shares or relationship beyond the acquisition of distribution assets.
What can we expect from Eleven Sports in the next 12 months?
First, we have to have the right team in place. We’re doing a lot of content deals at the moment and [will be] able to communicate more about the timelines for the coming year. We want to grow our reach and grow the number of paying households we reach. We also want, of course, to strengthen our rights portfolio. We have a promise to deliver at least 1,000 hours of live and exclusive quality content per year. To compare it with our other territories, most of the territories deliver close to or more than 4,000 hours of live content per year. So, for us, this is the first step. In the coming years, we want to grow significantly off of that.