Sports industry chatter has been dominated in recent times by the ever-looming prospect of tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook or YouTube outbidding traditional broadcasters for live rights and, in doing so, upending the consumption habits of fans.
Yet while developments have undoubtedly been made in the digitalisation of live sport, neither Sky nor BT’s cameras on Premier League touchlines have yet come under serious threat of being replaced by those belonging to Twitter or Facebook.
Instead, Manchester City’s new partnership with Amazon to create a behind-the-scenes documentary, announced last week, suggests that the real revolution appears to be taking place just off the pitch in tunnels, changing rooms and directors' boxes.
The American e-commerce giant is paying City roughly £10m for the privilege of bringing its cameras into the heart of the club’s day-to-day operations to create a documentary series on the current season for its Amazon Prime video service.
It is the latest instalment in a genre of sports documentaries that anyone with a Netflix or Prime subscription will have noticed with increasingly regularity when scrolling through either platform in search of new shows to watch.
Netflix has agreed similar deals with Italian superpower Juventus and Argentinian giants Boca Juniors, with both clubs agreeing to be the subject of a Netflix Originals four-part documentary series.
Already on the platform are its award-winning doping expose Icarus and a well-stocked library of high-production-value documentaries on subjects ranging from bodybuilding to Paul Gascoigne to the renowned basketball epic Hoop Dreams.
Amazon, meanwhile, already boasts two seasons of its fly-on-the-wall coverage of NFL franchises across a season — the All or Nothing series — and has similar all-access shows on Formula One team McLaren and the all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks still to come.
Facebook’s early forays into original programming will include Ball in the Family, a reality show about former NBA star Lavar Ball and his three talented sons Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo.
The appeal for clubs such as City in working with Amazon is the chance to expose their brand in parts of the globe where Premier League football may not enjoy mainstream prominence but online shopping does.
And sources close to the deal indicate that Amazon sees sports as a crucial sales hook for its subscription service — a new high-end drama tends not to trigger the same passionate commitment as a lifelong following of a favourite team — but maintains an equitable interest in both narrative content and live rights.
The exact level of access that will be granted by manager Pep Guardiola has not yet been finalised, but the show’s producers are keen to ensure that the series has a level of human interest that will make it interesting to more than just City fans.
“Younger consumers are proportionally more interested in other types of content than sports — particularly in markets where access to sport is quite expensive,” Richard Broughton, research director at media analysts Ampere Analysis, told City A.M.
“In those cases they’re being swayed more by the types of scripted content the on-demand services have on offer.”
Unlike Netflix, Amazon has snapped up live rights to ATP Tour tennis and Thursday night NFL games.
A first-of-its kind deal with a Premier League club therefore only raises speculation that Amazon is looking to strengthen its hand in a potential bid for live rights.
Yet £10m for a Manchester City documentary is a long way off the going rate of £5bn for three seasons of live football.
“Their current funding models would struggle to support top-tier sports rights,” says Broughton.
“For both companies you’re looking at lower levels of spend per customer than you see on a top-tier operator like Sky.”
Daniel Horlock, senior commercial manager at international media rights company B4 Capital, agrees. “Live sport has always been one of the main drivers for pay-TV,” he told City A.M.
“And while over-the-top (OTT) players remain unwilling to commit the huge sums necessary to prise live rights away from traditional linear broadcasters, producing original and exclusive content around the most prominent names in sport is a means to drive subscribers and media attention.”
For now then, original sporting documentaries are the next best thing and more in keeping with online platforms’ pre-existing libraries.
“To increase market share in two important growth markets Netflix is using the most popular clubs in the most popular sport in Italy [Juventus] and Argentina [Boca Juniors] respectively,” says Horlock.
“I believe Amazon’s deal with Manchester City has a more international strategy to it based on the global popularity of the Premier League.”
As league leaders, City’s football so far this season has offered entertainment on a par with any bingeable series.
All that’s left is to see whether Guardiola and his team are willing to play ball and deliver a dramatic ending next May.Let's