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Tennis blackout is a sign of the times

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A balmy Berlin played host to the annual get together of football big wigs this week, as the European Club Association met to elect its new board.

The gathering of around 500 executives a stone’s throw from the city zoo was a chance to gossip, lobby, and network — at least during the coffee breaks between rather drab sounding breakout sessions in airless hotel meeting rooms.

But the main event was the election, with more than two dozen spots on the ECA board up for grabs. Once the dust had settled, it was clear that one bloc in particular had gained ground: the multiclub operators.

Newly-appointed board members include Josh Wander of 777 Partners (readers may remember him from last week’s edition of Scoreboard), Eagle Football minority shareholder Michelle Kang, City Football Group chief executive Ferran Sorriano, and two representatives from the Red Bull drinks and sporting empire.

The ECA’s chair, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is himself an advocate of the model. Qatar Sports Investment, which he also chairs, owns Paris Saint-Germain and has a stake in Portuguese club SC Braga.

And even Hollywood A-lister Natalie Portman — the star turn in Berlin — wants in. Speaking on stage, the co-owner of Angel City FC said she and her business partners are keen on buying into more clubs. So keep an eye out for Black Swan Football Holding.

Charlie Marshall, ECA chief executive, insisted the evolving board membership of European football’s most important industry body was a positive step.

“It’s good that the ECA reflects the football market as it is. It means that we can be a more relevant participant with the regulator to make sure regulatory developments happen in the right way,” he said as the event wrapped up.

The genie certainly looks to be out of the bottle. In a sign of how widespread the model is becoming this season multiple linked teams will be competing against each other across European club competitions. In the Champions League, two Red Bull teams will again participate, as will both PSG and Braga. In the Europa League, West Ham and Sparta Prague have common shareholders, as do Brighton and Union Saint-Gilloise.

However, Marshall sees little cause for concern so long as supporters continue to have faith in what happens on the pitch.

“The [ownership] models are there. The structures have been built over many, many years”, he said. “There’s a regulatory system in place to make sure the sport itself retains its integrity. If we ever get to a place where the fans stop believing in the results, then we’re all done.”

This week we bring you a preview of the biggest sporting event in Europe this autumn — the rugby union World Cup in France, which kicked off last night. Plus we’re looking at a broadcast dispute in the US that has left millions of tennis fans staring at blacked out screens. Do read on — Josh Noble, sports editor

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The Disney-Charter cable war spoiling the return of autumn sport

Carriage fee fight: Tennis star Coco Gauff of the US, who lamented she couldn’t watch her opponents’ matches in New York this week due to a cable blackout © SARAH YENESEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the US this week, you could say it was the best of times (the return of college football! and the NFL! and the US Open!) and it was the worst of times, as more than 15mn Americans couldn’t watch a minute of the action.

The reason? A bitter dispute between Disney and Charter Communications, the pay-TV and internet provider with millions of subscribers in the nation’s two largest media markets, New York and Los Angeles.

Charter is unhappy about the fees being charged by Disney — a content supplier but increasingly a direct rival — so it has cut the feed to millions of homes.

It’s not unusual for media and cable companies to tussle over fees for content, but in this case the blacked out screens should be showing some of the most-watched live sports, during one of the most jam-packed sporting schedules of the year.

This fight is more than just a disagreement over carriage fees, but a referendum on the US media market. 

On the one end is Disney, owner of sports giant ESPN, which serves as a cornerstone of the fast eroding market for cable television (live sports are the most-watched programming) and, as a champion of direct-to-consumer streaming.

On the other end is Charter, one of the largest cable and internet providers in the US, which needs live sports programming to retain customers but also pays more than $2bn annually to Disney, a cash cow for a media giant in the midst of its own existential crisis. 

As the FT’s Lex column wrote this week, the Disney-Charter fight marks the end of the high-profit business model for both content generators and distributors.

The blackout has also had significant ramifications for athletes. Tennis stars like Daniil Medvedev and Coco Gauff who made it to the later rounds of the US Open have been unable to watch their opponents’ matches. As a result, Disney quietly began giving players logins to a company app so they could access ESPN, as the FT exclusively reported on Tuesday.

While they search for a solution, Disney has urged Charter customers to consider opting for Hulu, the live streaming service it co-owns with Comcast (side note: Comcast, which is expected to sell its minority stake in the service, announced this week they are moving up the deadline for deciding future Hulu ownership to the end of September).

On Thursday, Disney reiterated its “disappointment” that Charter took its networks down and said it has tried to extend carriage negotiations. “The question for Charter is clear”, the company said in a statement. “Do you care about your subscribers and what they’re telling you they want — or not?”

Meanwhile, Charter has said the distributor would only be willing to pay carriage fee increases in exchange for certain changes in their contract, including where and how Charter promote’s Disney’s direct-to-consumer services.

As of Friday afternoon, there was still no agreement between the companies. Barring a deal in the coming hours, a big slice of the US is poised to miss the first Monday Night Football of the 2023 season, frequently among the highest-rated programmes of the year. If so, the fight could get even more ugly, and fast.

Europe’s last Rugby World Cup . . . for now

Home favourite: France captain Antoine Dupont will be hoping to the lift the World Cup trophy on home soil © AP

France got the Rugby World Cup under way last night against three-time champions New Zealand, kicking off a near two-month show case for the sport. It will also act as a major test for the French authorities ahead of next summer’s Paris Olympics.

Europe, which won’t host the men’s tournament again until 2035 at the earliest, had better enjoy the show.

World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, expects to generate a surplus of €457mn from media rights and sponsorships. Cities up and down the country are expecting an influx of tourists, with 2.5mn tickets sold.

With home advantage, Les Bleus will be hoping to win their first World Cup, led by scrum-half and captain Antoine Dupont, arguably the best player in the game. They will face stiff competition from the likes of Ireland, currently the world’s top-ranked team.

Those teams are fuelling hopes that one of Europe’s finest can cause rare disruption to the grip on the World Cup by New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. England are the only side from the northern hemisphere to have won since the competition began in 1987.

In four years’ time, World Cup hosting duties return to Australia for the first time since 2003.

But beyond that, rugby’s Dublin-headquartered governing body is taking a new approach to growing the sport.

The United States will host the 2031 men’s tournament and the women’s edition two years later, as World Rugby chief Alan Gilpin fights to expand the sport’s commercial appeal to untapped audiences.

Gilpin, is hoping to emulate the success of others such as Formula One, the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga in cracking America.

Leaving the traditional rugby heartlands worked out pretty well last time round. The governing body reaped the benefits of taking the tournament to Japan four years ago, the first time it was played in Asia. More than 850mn people watched the 2019 World Cup on television, up from 678mn four years earlier, sending the governing body’s tournament revenues up to £360mn from £330mn in 2015.

With eight years to go until the World Cup goes to the US, the sport is working to grow the game in a country that is spoilt for choice, from NFL and basketball to baseball and even volleyball.

As football and cricket both make big pushes into the increasingly saturated US sports market, and with no Lionel Messi equivalent to promote the game, rugby union will have its work cut out.


Follow the money: An FT investigation looks into the mystery owners of the gambling brands that sponsor top flight football clubs
  • Watch this new FT video investigation: Uncovering the hidden money behind the Premier League’s betting sponsors.

  • Creative Artists Agency, the sports and entertainment talent manager that represents stars such as Son Heung-min, is changing hands. France’s Pinault family agreed to buy a majority stake in the Los Angeles-headquartered group from private equity firm TPG.

  • Manchester United shares slumped in a record daily price drop after a Daily Mail report suggested the Glazers were going to take the football club off the market. A person close to the process denied the report to Scoreboard.

  • Jorge Vilda was sacked as coach of the Spanish women’s football team just weeks after the team’s victory over England in the World Cup final. Vilda, who was close to disgraced football federation president Luis Rubiales, had been criticised by members of his own team in the months leading up to the tournament.

  • The owner of Formula One bought a sports and entertainment company that offers ticketing, hospitality and travel in a $313mn deal. Liberty Media, the vehicle controlled by telecoms billionaire John Malone, said QuintEvents already works with the F1 car racing series, motorbike competition MotoGP, the NBA and the Kentucky Derby.

  • Hedge fund manager and owner of the New York Mets Steve Cohen became the latest big name to sign up for the Tiger Woods-led virtual golf league TGL. He’ll take charge of the New York based franchise, joining the likes of Fenway Sports Group and Arthur Blank’s AMB Sports and Entertainment.

Final Whistle

As predicted, Lionel Messi has been lighting up the MLS with dazzling displays and glorious goals. Fans have flocked to see the Mona Lisa of football, or at least to get a picture of him.

But some eye-catching cameos from one of his entourage have created a new star on the sidelines: Messi’s personal body guard Yassine Chueko. Throughout Inter Miami matches, the muscle-bound former soldier, patrols the fringes of the pitch in order to ward off and intercept any would-be pitch invaders.

Always looming in the background, he was called into action last weekend at Miami’s trip to Los Angeles FC — sprinting 40 yards to tackle an overly assertive Messi fan.

Chueko now has just under 200k followers on Instragam, who get to see his regular updates from the gym or the boxing ring. With subscriptions to Apple+ soaring thanks to Messi, that number is surely going to climb.

Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team

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https://www.ft.com/content/6f1572dc-1a62-4b6c-845a-50ba52397db6 Tennis blackout is a sign of the times

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