As the triptych of races in the Arabian Peninsula comes to an end Stage 5 of the Tour of Oman on Saturday and its summit finish on the Jebel Akhdar promises one of the best contests so far this season. Only the week’s racing isn’t live on TV to the frustration of many. Can we expect to watch every race for free?
Cost vs benefit
It costs a lot to broadcast a race live. Oman doesn’t have the prodigious oil and gas reserved of Dubai and Qatar. It has some but less. You can measure this in barrels and dollars or see for yourself, the capital city of Muscat doesn’t have the skyscrapers of Doha and Dubai. But it’s more complicated than cash. The Omani race is run by Belgium company Paumer who buy in Tour de France company ASO to provide the logistics and filming. With this comes a sort of fixed price menu with a substantial price for the live TV.
Broadcast rights and wrongs
Go beyond Oman and it’s normal to talk about the manna of TV rights money. Only in pro cycling the sums today are modest.
A few races can auction off their TV rights to the highest bidder, extracting a premium rent. But unknown to many, a lot of races actually pay for their event to be on TV. In cash terms these rights are negative, a liability.
If nobody is willing to buy the rights then there’s still business to be done. Having TV is a big draw. It means you can charge more to the event sponsors, whether it’s the local region or the names printed on the jerseys, hoardings and other visible branding. It brings the big teams who welcome the publicity.
I’ve seen figures from €30,000-€50,000 per day. You need several motos each with a skilled driver and an experienced camera operator. Then you need a helicopter, pilot and a camera operator and both need to be highly skilled. The pilot has to operate a lot at margin of the helicopter’s performance, known as the H-V curve and the camera is unique. These speciality skills don’t come cheap. On top of this there’s a production crew sitting in a car plus a commentator. All this before you book the considerable satellite bandwidth for live communications and possibly an aeroplane to act as a relay link receiving the helicopter and moto signals and beaming them on.
The revolutions will be televized
Dedicated sports channels have added more events and digital broadcasting means more channels, whether via cable, satellite or the web. With this technology has come a sense of expectation and entitlement: if it’s not on TV then it must be on the web, even if means a pirate stream. This can be illegal which only shows the cultural expectation where many feel entitled to watch every race going but without paying for it.
Music has seen filesharing undermine its business model. But if copying an MP3 file is one thing, expecting to watch a high cost sports event for free is similar to watching a live stadium gig for free. Every weekend.
Perhaps the future is to pay. If the Tour of Oman feels a highlights package is plenty to showcase the sport and scenery, what if it could be persuaded by additional revenue from broadcasting rights? It’s far easier said than done but imagine some version of Netflix or iTunes for cycling where people pay $10 for a race like the Tour of Oman. Six stages at €30,000 = €180,000 or $250,000 in costs for the race means you’d need to find 25,000 buyers. Is that possible? Others will have better views but this blog can get as many readers in a day. And all this is before we explore the platform, the quality of the image and more. Easier said than done.
There’s an expectation that every big race should be on TV… And free too. It’s frustrating not to see the high quality contest in the Tour of Oman just as it was a pity there was no video from last weekend’s Le Tour Méditerranéen with its stunning finish on Mont Faron. But this costs a fortune.
Meanwhile we are all watching pirate streams, wanting to watch the race but rarely opening our wallets to pay for it. There might be substantial demand for online streaming of races especially as many would say they watch the pirate feeds because there’s no other way to see a race in their country.
For now even billionaire team owners and sections of the media who follow the sport professionally resort to pirate streams and play the Java-scripted wack-a-mole game of closing pop-ups like everyone else.