Eleven Sports on launching an innovative sports offering | Inside Content Podcast
Jonathan Nickell Chief Operating Officer
In this episode I speak with Anouk Mertens. Anouk Mertens launched the sports and lifestyle production company NEO Studios with Aser Ventures chairman Andrea Radrizzani in 2019. She is responsible for running NEO Studios’ global operations and for commissioning new projects. She was Executive Producer on the award-winning sports docuseries Leeds United: Take us Home and The Giants. Anouk combines her role with NEO, with the position of Chief Content Officer for NEO’s parent company the ELEVEN Group. Anouk was previously ELEVEN Group COO and before that MD for ELEVEN Belgium. Anouk began her career in broadcast media as a producer on the 2002 World Cup with Broodkast in Belgium before going on to hold leadership roles with cable operator Telenet and media company Sanoma in Belgium.
Firstly, we talk about Eleven Sports and what it does. Eleven Sports was founded by entrepreneurs Andrea Radrizzani and Mark Watson in 2015, with the intention of disrupting the traditional sports media landscape, specifically combatting the complicated sports bundles offered to fans which made watching sporting events painful and expensive. So the idea behind Eleven Sports was flexibility compared to many its competitors that already existed in the space. Eleven utilises a platform agnostic approach, meaning they want to bring sports to every fan, regardless of their platform, location or device. Currently, they have launched in several key markets, and have seen a rapid growth in the past six years. They also have a presence within Asia and the US with lots of on-demand content and strong B2B services. To summarise Anouk describers Eleven as the home of live sports, with over 65,000 hours of streaming live events a year through a combination of a network of platforms, streaming technology and B2B services.
We then move to talk about the changing Sports Television market. Anouk believes it is a very convoluted industry which is changing rapidly. There are more and more opportunities to engage with audiences she states, especially given the rise in OTT platforms and offerings which are playing a key role in the transformation of the sector. Eleven, however, still believe there is room for sports in traditional TV and a cautious balance between the new and the old is needed. However, engaging with customers and fans remains the key Anouk believes. In future projects Eleven wants to provide the tools to make sure fans interact with each other and sports as much as possible, through their platform. On its own OTT platform, Eleven has launched Watch Together, a tool that allows people to go online and watch games together. This is an example of what Anouk believes sports platforms need to be; a one stop shop for sports. Eleven believes in expanding this concept further to incorporate e-commerce, betting, gamification and much more in order to prioritise that engagement with fans. So, a lot of development is yet to come in the next few months and years.
I next ask Anouk how the business is navigating in such an intensely competitive sector. Anouk rebuts that Eleven is unique given its infancy, which allows them to look at sports in a different way compared to some of the other players that already exist in the landscape. Furthermore, Eleven has some very talented and experienced people within the team. Andrea the CEO has had more than 20 years of experience in sports and media, whilst Mark the COO has helped launch BT Sports in the UK. Combining this level of experience with an understanding of how to improve the sports landscape puts Eleven in a very unique position compared to its competitors. Eleven knows what fans want and how to deliver this to them. For example, in 2015 when Eleven launched in Belgium it has picked up the rights to the local pro league, football league, has accumulated a lot of premium content, has given a lot of attention to woman’s football and eSports. This has allowed it to establish itself effectively in the market, and is now the leading sports platform within Belgium, whilst engaging in a very interactive way with Flemish fans. For example, Eleven’s use of social media. Last year Eleven has over 600 million impressions in the country, one special success story was a TikTok video they made which garnered 21 million views. Ultimately, Eleven’s strategy is to focus on local markets and guarantee them big rights, whilst also finding new unique ways to interact with fans.
We move on to discuss Eleven’s distribution strategy. Across Europe it can be frustrating to be a fan of any sport and have to navigate multiple subscriptions to watch the sports you want to watch. I ask Anouk therefore what Eleven’s distribution strategy is, she reiterates the fact that Eleven is platform agnostic meaning that it will distribute on every single platform in any way possible in each market. This is especially important given how so often you can find sports rights in one platform one year, and a completely different platform the next. Returning to the Belgian example, Anouk mentions how Eleven is available anywhere, giving fans the option. If you want to subscribed to cable and have your sports bundle there, you can do that. If you prefer not to, you can also watch through Eleven’s OTT D2C platform. This malleability is key to Eleven’s success. This leads to a life cycle where given Eleven’s growing presence in the market, they can invest and improve their offering within that region, which leads to more customers and the cycle repeats itself.
Eleven has also expanded into Asia and so I asked Anouk how their operations were working in the region. Eleven already had operations in Taiwan and have now expanded beyond to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Bruni, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Anouk mentions how it was not difficult to penetrate the region and the strategy remains to make partnerships with local linear operators soon, to ensure and maintain that platform agnostic mentality. The main rights Eleven is looking for is the Asian Football Confederation rights. Currently, Eleven has International Cricket, Copa del Rey, some Badminton, Table Tennis and more in these regions. Eleven’s aim is to localise in each one gradually.
I ask Anouk next her role within NEO Studios and what NEO Studios does. Anouk tells me that NEO creates high-quality, non-live sports content. One of the first big shows they did was the Leeds United “Take us Home” documentary, with Leeds being owned by CEO Andrea Radrizzani. The idea behind the Leeds documentary was to really focus on the people behind the club, the passion, in the forms of fans, the staff, but most importantly the impact the club can have socially on a city. “Take us Home” is really the benchmark type of content that NEO Studios wants to tell in sports, not just by retelling the story that has already happened but go deeper and really show fans the true meaning and passion the show has for people. According to Anouk having this sort of perspective will also open these stories up to broader audiences. When it comes to differentiating themselves to right holders Anouk mentions that NEO’s uniqueness is their local knowledge and perspective, compared to most Studios which have a much more global perspective. This approach has allowed Eleven to develop relationships with clubs, leagues, agents and athletes, partner with them and translate those stories on a much more local level. Take us Home is an example of this success, a very local story which became a global success because of this local-first perspective.
I next asked Anouk what she thinks about the growth of global streamers. Anouk believes that the Streaming Wars are still in full swing as of now, however, we will begin to approach more consolidation in the next few years. I refer to how there are more and more local players who are trying to differentiate themselves from Global streamers through local-focused content and whether that is sustainable. Anouk rebuts that although local content will always be important, with the deep pockets global streamers have, it will be difficult to continue to compete against them, especially given these streamers are also heavily focused on local content. Anouk holds a pessimistic view that in the long-run there will be practically no space for individual local streaming services.
Moving back to Eleven Sports, I asked Anouk what the future strategy will be. Anouk mentions Eleven will continue to distribute lots of live content, continue their platform agnostic approach, but also focus on delivering to fans on a local level. The idea is for also NEO to complement the Eleven Sports offering with great sports documentaries, to make sure there is a live and non-live offering for fans.