In the world of sports, it’s always a riveting moment when a cocky rookie who’s never known defeat suddenly looks vulnerable.
The same holds true for sports media. Over the past couple of years, one of the most interesting stories in that world has been the rise of DAZN, a global streaming service dubbed “the Netflix of sports.” Bankrolled by the businessman Len Blavatnik, who is estimated to be worth US$19-billion, DAZN (pronounced da-zone) aims to disrupt the way we watch sports as much as the introduction of cable TV blew up the cozy broadcast landscape in the 1980s.
But DAZN just blinked.
Canadian sports fans have viewed the rise of the service, which launched here in the summer of 2017 with a massive package of NFL games and select European soccer matches, with a mix of excitement and dread.
Excitement, because after DAZN picked up a bunch of other marquee rights, including the English Premier League, some viewers chose to cut their cable cord. But dread, too: for casual fans of, say, women’s tennis, DAZN’s appearance on the scene meant they couldn’t tune in to TSN or Sportsnet whenever a women’s tennis tournament was on. Not only would they have to pay more – DAZN retails for $20 a month or $150 a year – they would also have to navigate the world of apps, which is frankly too much of a hurdle for some techno-challenged TV viewers.
That erupted into something of a national crisis last March during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif., when Canadian tennis fans had to figure out two things simultaneously: 1) how to pronounce “Andreescu”; and 2) which sports channel was showing the 18-year-old unseeded newcomer destroying anyone in her path.
What they discovered to their chagrin, through a lot of frantic Googling and tweeting, was that Bianca Andreescu was nowhere to be found on their cable dial. DAZN had the rights to the WTA tournaments, which comprises all of the important matches in the women’s calendar outside of the four Grand Slam events and the Rogers Cup.
Up that point, it’s fair to say that most Canadians had barely heard of DAZN, or how to watch (or pronounce) it. And even though, when Andreescu made the Indian Wells final, DAZN said it would stream the match free on its Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as its app, many fans missed out.
And so they blasted TSN, which owns the rights to the men’s tennis tour, for its perceived sexism in apparently ignoring the women. (For what it’s worth, the last time the WTA tournaments had been on TV, it was Rogers Sportsnet that had the rights. But that was some years ago and nobody much complained until Bianca came along.)
On Friday afternoon, TSN said it had secured the rights to nine of this year’s biggest WTA tournaments, including the Miami Open, the China Open and the Qatar Total Open, which begins airing Sunday morning at 6 a.m. ET. TSN will also air the triumphant return of Andreescu to Indian Wells next month, if she has recovered from her nagging knee injury by then.
DAZN will continue to stream those tournaments on its own platforms, though no longer on an exclusive basis.
That’s a sharp comedown for a company whose business model is based on securing exclusive rights to sports events and making viewers pay for them. Just last month, John Skipper, the former ESPN president who joined DAZN Group as executive chairman in 2018, told an industry gathering that “we want exclusive content. … When we bought the Serie A rights in Italy, or the Japanese baseball rights, we bought them exclusively.” He added: “We want to move people over. We want a transformation. We don’t want to be a complementary service.”
But even goliaths backed by billionaires sometimes have to compromise. Because last year, as Bianca shot up the rankings, the tennis powers-that-be in this country and at the WTA began to chafe at the situation. For the first time in recent memory – or, perhaps, ever – one of the biggest tennis stars in the world was from Canada. And most Canadians were missing out. DAZN got the message: Set Bianca free.
“At the end of the day, the average tennis fan in this country still looks towards conventional TV to see tennis,” Michael Downey, the president and CEO of Tennis Canada, said in an interview on Friday afternoon. “This is going to be great news for Canadian tennis fans who want to watch Bianca, because she’ll be playing in all those major tournaments that TSN has.”
He declined to comment on whether the WTA or Tennis Canada pushed DAZN to make nice and share its rights with TSN.
For DAZN, which is still trying to build awareness of its brand in Canada, it’s probably a smart strategy, even if it makes the company look weak. NFL football and EPL are its big subscriptions drivers; tennis is a nice add-on, but few people are going to sign on to the service just to watch the second-tier WTA tournaments. DAZN will continue to try to build its brand while flying in the promotional slipstream of TSN, as that network – which has a much higher profile, as well as a bigger marketing budget – raises awareness of the tournaments through its news coverage, advertising and the matches themselves.
A few months ago, I spoke with Norm Lem, the senior vice-president of revenue for DAZN Canada, who outlined the unique challenge of disrupting the sports landscape in Canada, which is dominated by two enormous telecom companies. “If you’re looking at a very duopolistic – ‘control’ may be a strong word, but – controlled sports-media market in Canada, it’s kind of hard to get your brand out there to the masses,” he said in an interview at the time. Given that, he suggested, DAZN would have to get creative to spread its message.
On Friday, I asked DAZN about its decision to sublicense its WTA rights. It declined to comment.