Tycoon’s ‘Netflix of Sport’ Beats Comcast to $3 Billion Deal

DAZN Group Ltd., the media disruptor known as the “Netflix of sport,” has bloodied the nose of one of the world’s top broadcasters in a watershed moment for fans of live soccer in Europe.

DAZN won a deal to become the main domestic broadcaster of Italy’s Serie A soccer league, home to players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, according to a statement Friday. It beat out Comcast Corp.’s Sky for the contract, which involves about 2.5 billion euros ($3 billion) of payments over its three-season lifespan, people with knowledge of the matter said.

The deal means the streaming company backed by billionaire Len Blavatnik is now the go-to broadcaster for millions of fans in the soccer-mad country. The win for DAZN underscores how a new breed of broadcasters are rising to challenge incumbents that have long leaned heavily on premium sports and entertainment packages to earn their money. DAZN offers its customers a range of online content without the need to sign up to more costly long-term contracts.

London-based DAZN will pay about 840 million euros annually for the broadcasting rights, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private. Sky said in a statement that it’s waiting for the league to fully complete the tender process, adding that it bids for content at a level that allows it to offer value to customers.

Long Deadlock

DAZN’s win was not an easy one, and breaks a deadlock that has lasted for weeks. The capacity to roll out an exclusive streaming service in Italy, which has patchy internet connectivity, was questioned during the bidding process by Sky and some of Serie A’s 20 teams, people familiar with the matter said previously.

With 1 billion euros of technological and financial support from phone carrier Telecom Italia SpA, DAZN was able to dislodge Sky, the pioneer of televised soccer that held the Serie A rights for almost two decades. Shares of Telecom Italia were up 3.5% at the close Friday in Milan, outpacing the 0.7% gain in Italy’s benchmark FTSE MIB Index.

At a Friday meeting of Serie A clubs to vote on the deal, representatives of four of the 20 teams present were opposed to giving the contract to DAZN, the people said. Officials from Genoa C.F.C., U.C. Sampdoria, F.C. Crotone and U.S. Sassuolo Calcio voted against, according to the people.

A.S. Roma SpA Chief Executive Officer Guido Fienga, who initially opposed a DAZN deal over concerns about its technological capability, voted in favor in the end, the people said. Representatives for A.S. Roma and Fienga declined to comment, while spokespeople for the other teams didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Europe First

Securing the Serie A rights is another sign that a more Europe-focused strategy is starting to pay off for DAZN. It’s the second time in less than a year that the group has scored a win over Sky, following a smaller victory in Germany in June.

“Investing in primary rights is a bold separation from DAZN’s past strategy,” said Maria Rua Aguete, senior research director at media research consultancy Omdia. “DAZN will be able to benefit from premium sports and the raised profile that goes along with it.”

Pronounced “da zone,” the company was launched in 2016 and spent quickly to acquire rights to broadcast sports including soccer, boxing and Formula 1 motor racing across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Still, the pace of that global expansion has weighed on finances.

DAZN reported an operating loss of 1.4 billion pounds ($1.9 billion) in 2019 and later saw subscription revenue take a hit when the coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halt to live sports. Last summer, a new leadership team was put in place under then-acting Chief Executive Officer James Rushton.

Together with former Chairman John Skipper, Rushton evaluated the core markets DAZN wanted to build on, such as Italy and Germany, and those in which it could cut back. It sought to withdraw from streaming UEFA Champions League soccer matches in Asia and pulled Serie A coverage from its Brazil platform. DAZN also cut a contract with U.S. Major League Baseball.

Deep Bench

In late 2020, DAZN unveiled a slate of original documentary programming featuring global sporting icons such as Ronaldo and British boxer Anthony Joshua.

“We want to give people a reason to return to DAZN again and again,” Ed McCarthy, the group’s chief operating officer, said at the time. “Sports fans want more than live action.”

In the meantime, Blavatnik has continued to reshape the company’s leadership bench, in January recruiting Shay Segev from the FTSE 100 gaming group Entain Plc to be co-CEO with Rushton. This month, DAZN named former Walt Disney Co. executive Kevin Mayer as chairman to succeed Skipper. Mayer has already expressed an interest in U.K. Premier League rights, according to an interview with CNBC shortly after his appointment.

“He truly wants to succeed with this,” Omdia’s Rua Aguete said. “He believes in the top team.”

Blavatnik, whose net worth is estimated at $37.4 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in his bid to build DAZN into a sports broadcasting powerhouse.

He’s been willing to make big bets before: Blavatnik bought Warner Music Group Corp. for $3.3 billion in 2011, a time when the industry’s revenues were heavily threatened by piracy. The business has now returned to public markets and is worth about $16.6 billion.

“His investment track record illustrates a keen ability to spot trends early and unearth opportunities that might seem counterintuitive at face value,” said Edgar Bronfman Jr., who was chairman of the record business at the time of Blavatnik’s acquisition. “Len has the resolve and drive to tackle any business challenge.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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