We live in an on-demand society. This, of course, is no surprise. It's why I can order diapers with a push of a Prime button while watching the third season of The Sopranos, eating Domino's I ordered with a tweet. But believe it or not, there are STILL places on this planet where life is very much like it was in, say, 1996, when if you weren't home to watch Friends on Thursday night at 8 p.m., then guess what? No Friends. Horrors. Yet one such place where this has largely remained the hard reality is airplanes.
Yes, many offer in-flight Wi-Fi (usually terrible) and a preprogrammed selection of TV and movies. And of course, we can download whatever show we want to our phones, tablets, or laptops, in preparation for a long boring flight. Or we could just sit and stare at the back of a headrest. But there is one very important form of entertainment that does not travel so well, and that is live sports. Yes, the last vestige of the once common concept known as appointment viewing, now a rare and valuable jewel. How much more enjoyable would that eight-hour flight to Berlin be if you could watch a whole day's worth of live NFL football? Or English Premier League Soccer? Ryder Cup golf? Olympics? Yes, yes, sitting in a chair in the sky is amazing, but y'know what would make it more amazing? Not missing the Champions League final because whomever scheduled your flight to that international meeting obviously has no love for European soccer.
That's exactly what IMG was thinking in 2012 when it launched Sport24, the only 24-hour sports channel created specifically for the airline and cruise line industries. Now, this has been possible in the domestic U.S. for a while, but the real breakthrough for Sport24 was taking the concept global. So far the brand has 13 airlines . . . ahem, on board, including Alitalia, American Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and WestJet, as well as nine cruise lines including Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Viking Cruises. In June, the company just launched a second in-flight channel Sport24 Extra.
Okay, so how do you beam live sports into a metal tube hurtling through the air at high speeds? According to IMG's vice-president of Sport24 and business development Tim Wood, it's all about the right technology partner, and plenty of satellites.
"We forged a relationship with Panasonic Avionics, which was and is still, very much the global leader in in-flight entertainment," says Wood. "We've been working with them closely over the last few years about what a product would look like, and how to create a sports channel for the world. It's incredibly expensive to do this, the channel is created through a series of 14 satellites that work in areas where there hasn't been a need for satellite activity, like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or the northern parts of Alaska and [the] arctic circle where there are a lot of flight paths. So it's involved having to launch satellites and finding connectivity in places that traditionally didn't need it."
The thing about live sports, particularly now with its increased value—the English Premier League sold its domestic TV rights alone for more than $6 billion—TV rights are packaged up to domestic and international broadcasters for top dollar. But Wood says IMG started thinking about the opportunity of international flights about a decade ago, and as an agency that distributes live sports rights, and a production company that produces them, it found itself in a unique position.
"Over the last decade we've been carving out international in-flight rights to any agreement we were doing, and discussing with federations the opportunity for when the technological capability arrived for a connected aircraft, there will be an ability for us to deliver live sports, and we wanted to make sure those rights were all clean because obviously you can't have aircraft flying over different territories and having to switch off or change over, like having to clear rights with ESPN over America, Sky over the U.K., and so on," says Wood.
Think about all those potential viewers, strapped to their seats, with nothing to do for a good five to eight hours. Sounds like an advertiser's dream, right? Sport24's brand marketing strategy revolves around teaming with brands on an exclusive basis for their category, like Hyundai for automobile, and Samsung for wireless. Marriott International also just signed up this month.
"In a world where appointment viewing sports is the last bastion of a captive audience, that applies even more for people on a flight, and allowing the exclusivity offers something a bit different," says WME/IMG head of sales Ciaran Bone.
For Marriott, it's about tying the brand to a premium traveling experience. "Sport24 is part of this global strategy by enabling us to deliver engaging and relevant content to a highly engaged audience while they are in the midst of traveling," says Marriott International global marketing officer Karin Timpone.