Evening Standard

In the frame: Ross Hair says ESPN has tried to be innovative with its coverage. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Sky and the Premier League is such a partnership – it has lasted longer than most marriages – that talk of a rival seems absurd.

Yet Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned television channel, is now seen as a serious contender to Rupert Murdoch’s prize possession. The bidding for the next set of rights, which will run from August 2013 for three seasons, is expected to start in the spring and the man talking of an Arab bid is Ross Hair, the boss of ESPN in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Hair has a vested interest as he seeks to hold on to his channel’s existing package of live matches.

We are in his office in Chiswick and, as talk turns to possible rival bidders, Hair says: “An Al Jazeera bid is a realistic prospect. They have done something very interesting in France in buying First Division football against the incumbent satellite broadcaster, Canal Plus, and we’ve also looked at what they’ve done in other markets.

“You can draw parallels with the upcoming auction in the UK. Al Jazeera have the ambition to grow further in sport and into other markets.”

The Qatari ambition is well known with the 2022 World Cup to be held there. Any Al Jazeera bid could mean ESPN paying more to keep its existing rights but this brings out the accountant in Hair as he says: “If there are other people who want to pay money that we consider doesn’t provide us good value then we won’t do it. We won’t be doing anything that doesn’t make our business sustainable.”

This was something that Setanta, the Irish channel which tried to outbid Sky in the last auction, failed to do and it went bust. Its demise in June 2009 brought ESPN into the English market but the American channel has a very different model.

Hair says: “Setanta said, ‘We’ll compete toe to toe with Sky on all rights,’ and that led to significant inflation in the market. We’re very competitive with Sky on content but on distribution we collaborate and they sell subscriptions to ESPN.

“[Stepping in for Setanta] was a baptism of fire to get the channel up on air for the start of the football season in six weeks. We’ve come a long way in two and a half years with consistent ratings growth.”

Hair will not reveal how many subscribers ESPN has, only saying: “We’ve always had double-digit subscriber growth year on year. In order to grow our subscriptions, we want to show a greater range of content: golf, tennis, cricket, darts. We’ve dipped our toe in all of those.”

ESPN was keen to more than just dip into cricket

and wanted a slice of the rights to show international and domestic games in England, which were available from 2014. However, with the England and Wales Cricket Board seeking a deal by last month, this proved impossible.

“We talked to the ECB but timing-wise it was difficult for us because we have the Premier League auction coming up,” the 45-year-old says.

“We would have preferred it if the cricket conversation had come post the auction.”

The result was that Sky retained its control over the game and shows how Premier League remains the top priority for the American channel.

And, for all Hair’s talk of how comfortably-placed ESPN is in the UK, a lot of work has been done to convince viewers that it could break away from its American roots. “People, aware that ESPN’s genesis is in American sports, wondered: would they start talking about touchdowns instead of goals?”

That hurdle was negotiated by hiring people such as Ray Stubbs from the BBC but still, every three months, focus groups are asked: “Is ESPN American?” To Hair’s relief, only 38 per cent now say it is, down from 55 per cent in July 2009 when its Premier League coverage started.

But why introduce American-style pitch-side studios? This was mocked by critics and caused its own unique problems.

Hair says: “We did get some negatives in terms of fans chanting. They ­interrupted the service, for example, with a football being kicked at Martin Keown. That didn’t help us. But those are the things we have to tweak. In general, the pitch-side studios have received a lot of praise.

“People enjoy seeing our presenters among the fans and being able to pick people out to have a chat to. I remember Thierry Henry at the Emirates for the FA Cup match against Leeds. We had Martin Keown doing the punditry and he called over Thierry when he was walking around the pitch and they had a chat in front of a camera. That can’t happen if you’re stuck in a studio.

“Similarly, managers are much more eager to just walk up and have a quick chat rather than having something set up in advance in a studio. It’s helped access.”

Hair would love to have the sort of access that is taken for granted by the American media.

“What American sports do very well in tandem with the broadcasters is have access to players and coaches immediately before, during and after,” he says. “ESPN has been going 33 years in the US so those relationships have been built up over time.

“It’s also a function of the US college sports system. You don’t find that anywhere else. It means that players get the media training from an earlier age and are much more conversant with the importance of the media to their careers. As a result there is access to changing rooms even for female reporters.”

So would British fans love to see those sorts of things happening here? “Of course they would. The levels of access are very limited but our guys have had some success during FA Cup matches. They were in the changing room for the Leyton Orient-Arsenal match.”

But could Hair really see Rebecca Lowe, one of his main female presenters, with a camera in a dressing room? “That may take time but it’s something we continue wanting. Our mantra is to get closer to the fans and to bring the game closer to them.”

As for his own allegiances, Hair is a dyed-in-the-wool Anfield fan. So deeply rooted are his Liverpool connections that, although he grew up in Gloucester, his parents returned up the M5/M6 so he and his siblings could be born there. “Until I was 12, I thought that everyone was born in Liverpool – everyone had to go back up there to be born.”

As he recalls this you sense the accountant in him wanting to bring out his romantic side, an impression reinforced when he talks of ESPN bringing back the era when FA Cup Final day was given blanket coverage on the box.

Hair says: “Then you saw the players being fitted for their suits and they were interviewed on the coach. I loved that. We did an all-day broadcast for our Cup final coverage last May when we tried to introduce some of those elements. I’d love to reintroduce some of that romance and glamour to the big days.”

Not that his arrival at ESPN last December was dictated by romance, more the need for the channel to expand. This is an area in which he can claim expertise. He was the finance guy who helped Sky launch Nickelodeon in the UK in 1993, which he proudly says “grew to be the No1 channel in the kids’ market”.

Then moving to Asia he worked for ESS, the Indian joint venture between Murdoch’s Star and ESPN that successfully exploited that country’s love of cricket. A decade at Sony Pictures followed which saw two television channels increase to 30. And now Hair is looking to start an ESPN sports video on-demand service similar to Love Film and Netflix.

“I love watching ESPN Classic with my son, showing him the great games of the past. But, if the 1981 Botham’s Ashes series is not on, I’d love to be able to dial it up and see it on a video on demand basis. I can see that form of sports watching growing and that’s a service we’re very well placed to launch. We have live rights and we have video on demand rights.” ESPN is already in conversations with the key platforms: Virgin, BT, Sky, Top Up.

“The question is how can we make this work economically,” he says. “This is a tough business to make money in but we are here for the long term.”

The steely determination in Hair’s voice suggests ESPN intends to remain here even if Al Jazeera moves in.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo