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'Katie is one of two or three female athletes who we think have superstar potential on a global scale'

Multi-billion-pound streaming giant DAZN is now live in Ireland, but they see an Irish sporting icon as a key part of their global expansion plans.

Katie Taylor in action on sports streaming service DAZN.
Katie Taylor in action on sports streaming service DAZN.

Updated Dec 14th 2020, 5:00 PM

FOUNDED IN 2016, sports streaming service DAZN was already well established in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Japan — countries in which it purchased the broadcasting rights to mainstream sporting staples such as the Premier League and the NFL — when it two years later announced its bid to infiltrate the US market by staking its claim in, of all things, professional boxing.

DAZN stated its plan to plough a billion dollars into what it perceived to be a sleeping giant of a sport only to subsequently learn that boxing is instead more of a temperamental bridge troll, awake all right but hostile, incoherent and unpredictable.

There have been peaks and troughs to the company’s two-and-a-half-year attempt to use the sport as a vehicle with which to crash through the barriers manned by ESPN and other such major players in the States; per the admission of one of their most prominent partners in the boxing business, Matchroom chief Eddie Hearn, it has taken longer than had been expected to make inroads.

On a more macro scale, too, patience has been paramount: DAZN announced plans in the first quarter of 2020 to launch its global service in conjunction with Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’s super-middleweight world-title scrap with Billy Joe Saunders, a superfight scheduled for May and due to be broadcast exclusively live on its subscription service. The onset of Covid-19 saw that fight cancelled and the company’s grand plan postponed. And then there was war.

A number of prominent US boxing scribes had already all but sounded the death knell for DAZN’s involvement in the fight business before Canelo, its flagship global star who in 2018 aligned with the broadcaster for a five-year, $365 million deal, filed a lawsuit against DAZN and his promotional company, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy, in October, seeking damages in excess of $280 million; effectively the remainder of his 11-fight contract.

The Mexican pound-for-pound superstar had grown frustrated by a prospective pay reduction in light of the pandemic, during which shares of hefty gate revenue would have to be sacrificed by both broadcaster and promoter. The three-weight world champion was also dissatisfied by the relatively low quality of mooted potential opponents, whose smaller paychecks would have eased the pinch felt by stakeholders.

The matter was settled out of court — “to everyone’s satisfaction,” per De La Hoya — with Canelo free to re-enter both the TV and promotional markets as an unattached free agent.

One wondered where that left DAZN, whose boxing centrepiece was now free to fight on other networks. But the aftershocks of his seismic departure didn’t last long. On 18 November, Canelo announced his long-awaited ring return in a super-middleweight world-title scrap with Liverpool’s Callum Smith, to be co-promoted by Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom and shown exclusively live on DAZN, his former — and current-again — broadcast partner.

Media facing_ Canelo_Tablet_V3 Canelo returns from a 13-month ring absence against Callum Smith exclusively live on DAZN this Saturday night.

So, with exclusive international rights to Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight world-title defence against Kubrat Pulev on Saturday (except for in Ireland and the UK, where it remained exclusive to Sky Sports Box Office), with future Hall of Famer Canelo set to finally resume his career this Saturday coming — just a night after his great rival Gennady Golovkin also returns on the same platform, and with a tantalising lightweight scrap between Luke Campbell and Ryan Garcia pencilled in for subscribers on 2 January (all three of which will be shown exclusively live on DAZN in Ireland and the UK), the time finally came for the broadcaster to launch in 200 countries and territories worldwide.

Never in doubt, says the man with the plan.

“Let’s be honest, not only those of us who make our business in sport, but in most industries, have been significantly, negatively impacted by Covid,” acknowledges executive vice president Joe Markowski, who will oversee DAZN’s global expansion. “Through eight or nine months’ hard work, we managed to ride out the storm and end the year in a really healthy position.

“There is an element of relief”, Markowski continues, “but I’ve been confident for a number of months that the steps we took to mitigate against the pressure that Covid brought to our business had us going in the right direction.

“There were nervous moments at the start but over the last six months, I’d say, we’ve known internally as a business that we were heading in the right direction. We had this line in the sand in our heads; to get to the end of the year in this position. It’s just been about executing it correctly.

“Not the easiest thing in the world,” smiles Markowski, a 31-year-old Englishman who was part of the original five-man team to found the broadcasting company, which now employs over 3,000 people worldwide.

“You know, there’s been give and take and there’s been re-negotiations of contracts, resets of relationships. But I think particularly in relation to the current slate of fights, the relationship with Matchroom is fantastic and they’ve shown great flexibility in working with us to build up this schedule towards the end of the year.”

anthony-joshua-and-jarrell-miller-press-conference-hilton-london-syon-park Joe Markowski, executive vice president of DAZN. Source: John Walton

In light of its launch in Ireland and around the world, DAZN’s partnership with Matchroom is pertinent to fans of Katie Taylor, who fights under Hearn’s company banner. As far as the undisputed lightweight champion’s future bouts are concerned, there are nuances to the shared broadcast rights between DAZN and Sky Sports which can be best summed up thusly: when Taylor fights in the UK (or in Ireland, which remains unlikely for the foreseeable) or on Sky Sports Box Office bills, it will be available to watch here only on Sky. But when she fights again in the States or elsewhere on non-pay-per-view shows, her bouts will be shown exclusively by DAZN, to which people in Ireland can subscribe for €1.99 per month (£1.99 p/m in Northern Ireland).

In a wider context, though, DAZN views Taylor as a key component of their expansion, and a catalyst for an ongoing culture shift in broader sport which Markowski makes no bones about wishing to both aid and avail of.

“We see Katie Taylor as a huge superstar in the world of women’s sport; we see an opportunity over the next couple of years to really expand her brand globally through DAZN, and accelerate the recognition and success that she’s been having over the last few years.

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“I think Katie is a really interesting part of our business. She is representative, I think, of a bit of a shift in the minds of sports fans globally.

“If you asked sports fans five or six years ago — in established, progressive markets like Ireland, the UK and the US — how much women’s sport they watched, it would have been a very small percentage of them that would have been doing so. But the growth of women’s sport, the growth of consumption and interest around women’s sport, has really been a major trend in our industry, and in our sports fans’ minds.

“We, as a business, recognise that, and we are very keen to do what we can to invest in it, to give it a platform.

Boxing will just be the first slate of content we go with because we own [rights to] it globally and we can leverage it to fuel the global launch. But you’ll see us invest more heavily in women’s sport in the coming years. And Katie is one of two or three emerging female athletes who we think have superstar potential on a global scale. We want to make sure that group, Katie included, are given the platform and the investment they need to really accelerate their growth.

“Katie’s also just a fantastic business partner,” Markowski adds. “She’s a lovely person, her family are great, the team around her are great, and she’s obviously well promoted by Eddie with whom we have a great relationship. So, there are a number of reasons why you’d want to be in business with Katie Taylor.

Investing in women’s sport is just the right thing to do. It hasn’t been invested in as heavily as men’s sport but we see the tide is turning there and we want to be a part of that; we want to help it move even faster than it already is. But as a business, being candid, if we can get more women watching sport, if we can get more people watching women’s sport, that’s going to be good for business, as well.

BOXING Taylor Katie Taylor will be shown exclusively live on DAZN when not fighting on a Matchroom UK or Sky Sports Box Office bill.

As for whether this backing of female sport has been DAZN’s plan from the outset or, like their partner Hearn, an approach they have simply come to realise makes remunerative sense, Markowski explains: “I think we’ve always been interested in opportunities to broaden and deepen our relationship with sports fans, right?

“A lot of the things that you’re going to see us do over the next two or three years will be about us becoming a more important part of sports fans’ lives — not only the content we broadcast but the way in which we broadcast it and the services we offer around the broadcast, the products within the service, the functionality, et cetera. It’s all about becoming more and more important within the lives of the sports fan.

And if you think about that within the context of a household, I know from speaking to friends with kids: their willingness to turn away from or delete a product is dramatically reduced if their kids or members of their family are using that service as well. So, while obviously women’s sport is not only to be enjoyed by women, I think one of its major values from a business perspective is that it engages young women in particular in a manner in which they haven’t traditionally been encouraged to engage.

“And I think boxing definitely ticks that box: I’m not sure that, 10 years ago, many families were encouraging their young girls to watch boxing; it was seen as being this male-dominated…part of the patriarchy, to be perfectly honest! But Katie is such a good role model for women’s sport, and for boxing full stop, we want to work with her because it helps our business, but also to drive the women’s-sport agenda forward generally.

And I have to be honest about it: we are a business. We want to help our bottom line and deepen our engagement with families — and that includes women. Of course it does. But Katie is also just good for boxing generally. It’s not about her being a woman. She’s just such a good role model that it helps the sport, it helps Eddie [Hearn], and it helps everyone, I think.

katie-taylor-makes-her-way-to-the-ring-before-the-bout Taylor walks to the ring for her most recent bout versus Miriam Gutierrez. Source: Matchroom Boxing/Dave Thompson/INPHO

Make no mistake about it: if DAZN ‘works’ in Ireland and the UK, it will change the face of the sports-broadcasting industry on either side of the Irish Sea — and that transformation would be welcomed by pretty much everybody who isn’t aligned to its more established competitors.

Its pockets are deep enough to preclude DAZN from being viewed as some sort of plucky upstart, but its recognition that the pockets of the everyday sports consumer are being emptied faster than ever has become a strategic staple in its breakthrough bid: Markowski cites conversations with Irish friends and says the company wishes “to bring down the cost barrier that I know is prohibitive to many Irish sports fans”. He describes the €1.99-per-month price point as “an aggressive statement but one that we’re proud and very confident in making”.

But unlike Britain, wherein boxing has become something approaching a mainstream sport through years of Sky Sports exposure, there is scarcely a latent appetite for the sport in the Republic of Ireland — so much so that no major British promoter has put on a show here since Hearn could only half-fill the 3Arena for a Matthew Macklin-headlined bill in 2014.

But as has been made clear by DAZN since its American launch in 2018, boxing is merely a starter car on their mapped-out road to domination.

The streaming giant already holds the licence for some of the world’s premier sporting competitions in enough countries to feel confident of winning the race for rights to the likes of the Premier League, Champions League, Six Nations and UFC in Ireland, the UK and beyond in the coming years.

soccer-1-bundesliga-fc-bayern-munich-sc-paderborn-3-2 DAZN will likely seek to infiltrate the football market in the UK and Ireland in the coming years. Source: DPA/PA Images

“In the UK and Ireland, because of how loud Eddie Hearn’s mouth is — and he won’t mind me saying that; he’ll take it as a compliment — a big perception of the DAZN brand is that we’re basically a boxing business,” says Markowski. “We’re not — we’re a sports broadcasting business. We just happen to have made a lot of noise over the last two years in the US with a large investment in boxing. That investment allows to have content that fuels this initial launch but like the rest of our markets (in other countries), we’re going to quickly become a multi-sport broadcaster on a global basis.

“The list of opportunities that are already coming into our teams and the pipeline that we’re combing through in various parts of the world is long.

We’re going to be involved in every single major sports media rights tender in every part of the world. People are going to want to talk to us, obviously, to drive their rights sales processes. We will quickly diversify our global platform. We will quickly, within 2021, dive deeper investment-wise into specific markets using that global platform as an architecture. It’s like, ‘The foundation is laid, let’s build a house, now, in that country and invest more heavily.’

“Quickly, we’ll be seen as more than a boxing business.”

In the more immediate future, though, boxing will be the business foremost on the agenda for DAZN subscribers in Ireland, beginning with Gennady Golovkin versus Kamil Szeremeta this Friday night, and continuing with Canelo Alvarez’s superfight with Callum Smith on Saturday.

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