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June 17 2012

Paying the price for sports on television
By May Chen
Straits Times. All Rights Reserved

Football's Euro 2012, US Open golf, tennis' French Open, the National Basketball Association finals, Formula One Canadian Grand Prix - this month has served a television feast for the sports fan.

But it comes at a price: $149.11, to be exact.

That is how much one would need to pay SingTel and StarHub, the two pay-TV operators here to watch the events. A decade ago, when Singapore Cable Vision was the only pay-TV outfit, sports channels cost $28 a month.

Add niche sports like cricket, American ice hockey and mixed martial arts, and be prepared to shell out another $100. To have your pick of sports programming for the entire year will cost more than $1,800.

Following last week's record £3 billion (S$5.97 billion) deal the English Premier League (EPL) sealed for TV rights in Britain - a massive 70 per cent increase likely to spark significant jumps for the international market - consumers are now worried that the cost of watching sports will only continue to rise.

Said Singapore permanent resident Anish Mathew, 47: 'It seems to be rising at an exponential rate. Coming from India, where you pay $10 for more than 200 channels, it's shocking.' The cricket fan, who has lived in Singapore for 16 years and works in the financial industry, gave up his StarHub sports subscription when rival SingTel came.

'I am forced to go without the cricket matches that are shown on StarHub,' he said, despite spending $100 for pay-TV a month.

Mr Bill Bremner also decided to stick to just one of the pay-TV providers. Said the Canadian, 48, who has been here for 25 years: 'I'm missing out on a lot of my favourite sports like tennis, golf and now, one of the best F1 seasons ever - but I refuse to pay for both - out of principle.'

Sailing coach Maximilian Soh, 24, who pays about $150 a month for most sporting channels on both StarHub and SingTel, added: 'Even then, it's not all-inclusive. Every time something else like football's World Cup or Euro comes along, you have to pay extra.'

It does not help that prices in Singapore far outstrip those in nearby countries. In Malaysia, for example, subscribers to Astro's sports package get to watch Euro 2012 without paying more. Here, it costs an additional $70.

Mr Vivek Couto, executive director of media research firm Media Partners Asia, believes that Singapore viewers pay more because of the country's smaller population.

'India, for example, is a much bigger market, with close to 80 per cent of households subscribing to pay-TV. Singapore also has a substantially higher GDP per capita than India,' he said, noting that consumers in markets such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand pay about US$25 (S$31.80) a month for their sports channels.

According to a 2010 report by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia, 65 per cent of households here have pay-TV.

Industry watchers also point out that the intense competition between the pay-TV rivals here mean that free-to-air broadcaster Media- Corp can no longer afford to compete for premium sports content.

In 2000, football's European Championship was on free-to-air TV after then-Television Corporation of Singapore reportedly paid $400,000 for exclusive rights.

It is a whole different ball game now. Rights to Euro 2012 were reported to have gone for around US$5 million in Asean markets.

StarHub and SingTel also reportedly paid Fifa $21 million for World Cup rights in 2010, while it is believed SingTel parted with $400 million for rights to the EPL in 2009.

Mr Jon Collins, the CEO of consultancy firm Centurion Football, with experience bidding for TV rights to the EPL, said: 'Pay-TV operators know that sports are a must-have if they want to be successful. Free-to-air television just can't afford to compete with them anymore.'

Although there is still sports content on free-to-air television, it is limited to events such as badminton's Li-Ning Singapore Open and football's Lion City Cup.

The fact that viewers without pay-TV are now left with close to zero access to high-level sports events could have an impact on the sporting culture, said Nominated MP and former national fencer Nicholas Fang.

'It would definitely help to build a sporting culture if Singaporeans have more access to sports programming and it's a shame that there aren't as many events on free-to-air channels today as there were in the past.

'But at the same time, prices are commercial decisions. Many events featuring Singapore athletes are still accessible on free-to-air television and hopefully it remains that way.'

It is understood that the Media Development Authority (MDA) has a list of events that prevent pay-TV operators from acquiring exclusive rights to as they are of national interest. These include major events that local athletes compete in, such as the Olympics.

While it is inevitable that fans feel the pinch, Mr Collins argued that sports on television has evolved over the years.

'Sports today is far more professional with much higher standards than 10 years ago. At the end of the day, sports fans can choose whether or not something is worth parting with their money for.'

The MDA introduced a cross-carriage rule in 2010 to make future exclusive content available across the two pay-TV platforms. While it was not meant to drive down prices, Nomura analyst Sachin Gupta feels there may be light at the end of the tunnel yet.

He said: 'With cross carriage regulations, the potential to overbid over-the-top may be limited. This should effectively translate into controlled consumer prices.'

For sports fan Pramodh Raja, 31, the ball is still in the consumer's court.

'There are a lot of websites that offer live streaming and are free of charge now. And I can always head to a pub with my friends to watch a match. I have the choice to pick what I feel is value for money.'