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Iflix Ramps Up Live Football

By Mike Savage

It could be a reckless move that entirely disrupts a business or it could lead to scalable consumption and monetization or it may do both. Aspiring internet TV disruptor Iflix has made its biggest local content bet so far, striking a deal to livestream hundreds of football matches for free in Malaysia. The landmark pact is being delivered through a 10-year 50/50 JV with the sport’s local governing body, Football Malaysia.

It’s a major commitment to live, ad-supported content that shows Iflix continuing to move further away from its SVOD roots. A week into its coverage of Malaysian football, more than half a million free users flooded into Iflix’s system. The tie-up has sparked interest from domestic sports leagues around the region and similar arrangements could be replicated elsewhere. It also represents a big advance for Iflix in Malaysia where rights and talent are controlled by incumbent broadcasters, as in-country scale becomes increasingly important for Asia’s regional online video services.

“We want to be a mass market media company that connects with millennial generations in the device they care about most,” Iflix co-founder and CEO Mark Britt tells Media Partners Asia. “From that perspective, you start to look more like a traditional media company,” Britt adds. “You do have sport, you do have advertising, you do have a free tier, as well as a premium tier. They are all new muscles that now we need to go and build.”

The deal, formally announced days before the first games were due to kick off, highlights the restless pursuit of revenue and sustainability in a rapidly changing landscape that online video startups have become only too familiar with. It’s also the beginning of another cycle in the stormy but ever-hopeful world of Malaysian football, searching for an escape trajectory into a world where it can grow and prosper in the future.

Long-term local rights. The JV in Malaysia has pledged to show all games from the Liga Super, the top division, and the Piala Malaysia, a knockout tournament featuring teams from the top two leagues, live on Iflix. In addition, Iflix will also broadcast select games from the Liga Premier, the second division, the Piala FA, a knockout tournament which also features teams from the third tier.

It’s a major ramp-up in production resource and internet delivery for Iflix, which made its first forays into livestreaming last year, including simulcasts of top flight domestic football in Indonesia. Nonetheless, early demand for the opening games in Malaysia overwhelmed existing capacity, prompting widespread outages. Previous peaks in simultaneous viewing for Iflix had come during livestreams of e-gaming (Galaxy Battles 2018 Qualifiers) and of Korean music (Mnet Asian Music Awards, the comeback tour for boyband BTS) over the latter part of 2017, although these still left Iflix unprepared for the viewing surge among Malaysian football fans.

Iflix has committed a minimum of RM300 mil. (US$77 mil.) to the JV for tech upgrades to support mass viewing, as well as licensing fees for individual clubs together with production of original content. That includes features geared to online viewing such as alternate commentaries and condensed versions of matches. In time, supplementary and exclusive content may form the basis for paid extras, although the focus for the next year, and possibly two, will be to strengthen viewing and interest in local football.

A move outside SVOD. The games will be free for the 2018 season at least, as Football Malaysia embarks on a new push to shore up the games finances through broad access. The move marks a departure from earlier commercial strategies for Malaysian football, which had relied more on exclusive distribution through pay-TV, as well as other streaming sports services in Southeast Asia. “We want this to be as free for as long as possible, ideally always free,” Britt says. “We believe, if executed well, there are opportunities for sponsorship, merchandising, other ways of making money.”

The JV has also publicly and privately reached out to telcos to absorb or lower data costs for watching the games. A number of telcos however are keen to maintain network economics. This would entail Iflix maintaining some notional pricing power for each game, conflicting with current ambitions to provide them free.

Future games will include commercial breaks, although these haven’t featured in the first games of the season, which kicked off early Feb. The JV is also targeting a big boost in sponsorship revenue from digital rights, adding to title sponsorships from TM (Liga Super and Piala Malaysia, announced early Feb.) and 100Plus (ongoing Liga Premier deal that started in 2016). TM’s title sponsorship, announced after Iflix’s deal, is worth RM480 mil. (US$123 mil.) over eight years. It includes rights to show two out of six Super League games every match day, as well as other games on TM’s IPTV platform, recently rebranded as Unifi, with all Super League games available live on Unifi TV’s authenticated multiscreen service, PlayTV. It also cements Football Malaysia as Southeast Asia second-richest domestic football league after the Football Association of Thailand, which has scored lucrative deals with TrueVisions (media rights) and Toyota (title sponsorship).

For full analysis with charts and tables, please contact Lavina Bhojwani, VP, Client Services, Media Partners Asia

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