SVG Sit-Down: MP & Silva’s Cohen on NFL International Rights, Engaging Millennial Fans

Last month, MP & Silva inked a five-year deal to represent the NFL in its media-rights negotiations for 42 territories across Europe. The deal, which begins with the 2015-16 season, marks another chapter in the company’s efforts to expand its portfolio of international rights for major North American sports properties, which now include the NBA, MLB’s World Baseball Classic, and Major League Soccer.

SVG sat down with Daniel Cohen, SVP, Americas, to discuss MP & Silva’s major NFL international-rights deal, expanding U.S.-rights portfolio, growth into new “underserved” sports markets, and the importance of appealing to digital-savvy millennial fans.

Daniel Cohen, SVP, Americas, MP & Silva

Daniel Cohen, SVP, Americas, MP & Silva

How did the NFL European-rights deal come together, and why did it make sense for MP & Silva at this time?
I think there are two reasons, the obvious one being the economics behind the deal. You’re not going to get a deal done unless you have a pretty strong bid, which we were able to accomplish. But I know it was not the economics alone that did it. We are a very different agency in the approach that we take with our partners. We are much more an advisory agency in how we talk to them and how we work with them 50/50. So our rightsholders will come to us and actually point to [a strategy] that worked in the past for them. And they will teach us and educate us just as we would educate them.

We have a very small, nimble, flexible group. Our staff is about 100 across 19 offices globally, and we put a strong emphasis on local-market and local-people knowledge. So, on a big property, we are going to have an understanding of that local market and that local flavor that other big corporate agencies may take a long time to develop.

How important will that local-market knowledge be in marketing the NFL in Europe?
It’s essential. From an American perspective, Europe is typically viewed as [a continent], but there are so many intricacies within each country alone. Take Belgium, for example, where you have two cultures and two languages within one country.

You need to know the market, you need to know what are fans consuming, how are they consuming, is this country connected to devices in different ways than other countries and their neighbors are? What are the telecoms doing, what are the technology companies doing? What are the local laws that allow us to do different things and let the rightsholder utilize those laws to their benefit. What [does] the infrastructure look like? What can we do on the ground, in stadiums, around arenas?

What European nation included in this deal do you see having the biggest potential for NFL growth?

I think Spain is tremendously undervalued. We look at Spain as a key market for us.

France, obviously, for no other reason than the proximity to London, where the games are being played. You could hop on a train real quick and be at the event. So there’s going be a big push of engagement there to get fans to London.

I think Italy is another really interesting one. You have 60 million potential fans that are rabid sports consumers.

I think you’re going see some key Eastern European markets [whose potential hasn’t] been tapped. There are a couple rabbits in the hat there that we are not going to go public with yet, but we’re talking to the NFL in detail about what we can do in Eastern Europe, where there is this passion for American sports and it just hasn’t been exploited yet.

We aren’t starting from scratch. The NFL has done a great job over the past several years to kick-start things. Now we’ll go on in and build off of those successes. Then you can start to look at those inter-country demographics and pinpoint specific strategies.

MP & Silva has dramatically increased its international rights for North American sports properties. How have these properties grown globally in recent years, and how have you contributed to that?
The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, MLS, and your other big leagues have all done a great job of establishing themselves in this country.

The NBA, in particular, has done a fantastic job of leading that push, especially in China. They all have potential to do more within this country, but there’s a ceiling domestically at some point. All those leagues are at a very different point of saturation and brand development and awareness.

But the NFL is the number-one sport in the number-one sports-consuming nation in the world, so they need to look global. There needs to be a push to have children running around the playgrounds throwing an American football around, wearing a Tom Brady jersey. There needs to be fans that are on a Eurorail with WiFi that can watch a live stream of a game. It’s true that it’s a business, so it’s all about money, but it’s all about money in key markets where there is potential for that fan to grow. So it’s about access and engagement.

How important is it for leagues, especially those with older-skewing fan demographics like golf and baseball, to put a priority on appealing to millennials and keeping them engaged?
Kudos to the PGA for launching their new network and their millennial-centric network with different types of content focused on short form. They are getting it late, but at least they’re doing something. I think you are going to see every single league push the envelope and try to do more along those lines, if they haven’t already.

Fortunately for us, we are partnered with forward-thinking rightsholders. We are partnered, as you mentioned, with Major League Baseball for the World Baseball Classic, and they’ve done a tremendous job on the technology front with Major League Baseball Advanced Media. We look to partner with rightsholders that have either created that in-house or are open to discussing with us how they can best take advantage and add value to their traditional TV-rights and media-rights packages.

With that in mind, has MP & Silva grown its digital team and resources?
We have doubled down on our digital staff just within the last year, and we are going to continue to grow that digital staff. We are looking at countries that are really well-connected but whose fans are underserved. We have digital projects under way across various different regions already.

Digital is absolutely a growth area, and we need to continue to keep our finger on that pulse. We need to continue to respect broadcast TV but acknowledge the fact that, at home, a teenager who is sitting in front of a TV is using his or her phone or laptop or iPad as a second screen, as a connected device. We have to cater to that fan because that is the future.

Are there any specific markets and sectors where you are seeing new revenue opportunities?
The channel business has been relatively new to the company, and we saw it as an opportunity to increase the value of those leagues, of those rightsholders, and also enhance the production side. We wanted to get a little bit more control into how we’re producing it and really put a strategy behind it, because, in these areas, there wasn’t necessarily a comprehensive strategy from top to bottom. There wasn’t a comprehensive strategy on how to value all of their media rights, not just broadcasts but digital, social, and data. So, when we look at these deals now, we see, wow, we can have a strong partner and we can produce our own content and we can drive value through that control. And the buy-in from the leagues tells us that the formula is working so far.

In Southeast Asia, we launched our own channel there, and we also produced the AC Milan channel and Arsenal TV. There are 100 different ways to skin the cat on this: you can go directly to a club; you can go directly to the league and do a league-wide deal, a league-wide channel, a league-wide OTT, whatever it may be.

An interesting focus for us right now is on this domestic-league push, where we are looking at what we see as undervalued markets: Poland, Belgium, Malaysia, and Singapore. There’s an underserved population that is looking to find this content in other new forms: on mobile, at different hours and different types of plays and windows. I think we’re positioned well. Our production team out of Singapore has increased trifold, and there’s a lot that can be done in the market domestically. There are a lot of interesting plays in terms of potential channel development and technology development. Without diving into numbers, we paid less for the Malaysian domestic league rights than [for] EPL, and we have probably 10 times the amount of viewership for that. So there are a lot of underserved, under-valued local-rights opportunities.