News & Views

Scott Ferguson (DAZN): “With 25,000 live events a year, we had to invent the workflow.”

The highlights

  • How DAZN uses WHATS’ON to manage the workflow for 25,000 live events a year plus all additional content.
  • How DAZN acquires rights.
  • How DAZN manage localization for 9 territories.
  • How they deal with 85% of their audience coming on at the same time
  • How they deal with contingencies and last-minute changes.
  • How their real-time data drives personalization and informed decisions

In times when Corona was just a beer, we had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Ferguson, Vice President Content Planning and Analysis at DAZN Group. We talked about the difference in complexity between OTT  and ‘traditional’ linear channels, the challenges of broadcasting live events (across 9 territories and often up to 40 at the same time!), and how they manage all that.

In the absence of live sports events, DAZN – like all other sports streamers and broadcasters – are finding new and creative ways to keep their viewers engaged. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs away and live sports are back with a vengeance, we can expect this interview to be more relevant than ever, as there will be a major clash between rights, obligations and restrictions, and operational efficiency will be of the essence.

Scott, we all know that DAZN is the world’s largest OTT live and on-demand sports streaming service, but maybe less known is the fact that DAZN also has linear channels. Based also on your previous experience with Linear at Al Jazeera and BeIN Sport, what, to you, is the main difference in complexity between the two?
S.F.: “On-demand streaming is like a smorgasbord of choice. We put content available and we let you choose what you want to watch and when. Whereas on a linear service we make the decision for you. In Italy, for instance, we have a linear service that sits on the Sky platform. But our core business is OTT. The challenge in OTT has to do with the sheer scale: how to make all that material available, localized for every territory? And also: how to deal with the paradox of choice? The viewer has hundreds of items to choose from and doesn’t always know what to watch. In fact, they can choose any of the multiple live events that are happening at the same time. For the viewers, that is the great freedom of OTT and DAZN in particular. You decide whether you will watch an event live or later, or maybe only the highlights.”

Yes, fans increasingly watch the highlights, as well as interviews, behind the scenes, and other additional content, don’t they?

S.F.: “It is a great time to be a sports viewer, don’t you think? When I was a young man, we were starved of sports on TV. Now there’s so much of it, on nearly every device.  But we like to think that our offering is unique, because we are a sports-only platform, for the sports fan and sports enthusiast.
Like everyone else we are conscious of the interest fans have in sport outside of the event itself. If on a Friday night, for instance, we have a match in the Bundesliga or the Premier League, we usually also offer behind-the-scenes at the club and interviews. We also have a lot of outside-event features that sit on rails you can also access during the week. We have also moved into creating original content, both long and short form. These include successful pieces with Mario Götze in Germany, MotoGP rider Marc Marquez in Spain, or the many global items with Ronaldo and boxers Anthony Joshua and Canelo Álvarez. We believe all that helps to attract the audience to the platform. But the great majority of the audience on the platform still watches live events, because if you are a sports fan, live is obviously where you want to be.”

The name of your department recently changed from “Central Programming” to “Content Planning and Analysis”. What is the story behind this new name?

S.F.: “It is just a formal confirmation of what we were already doing, because our job has become more scientific. In essence we analyse how the content is performing and how we can plan for it to better perform across the business.”

“We know exactly what our audience is watching, down to the second.”

Your department has all the data, about the content but also about the viewers?

S.F.: “Yes, we are quite unique in the streaming business in the sense that we do not work with audience panels or BARB reports. As our supply is IP based, we know exactly what our audience is watching, down to the second: when they are watching it, how often they are watching it, when they drop off, when they come back to us …  the entire journey of viewing. What we do is, we link all this data to the Unique Identifier of every piece of content that we stream. This way we know about everything on the platform, how it is performing, who has watched it and who hasn’t. Each territory knows for every single piece of content it has on the platform, how much value it has for the local business in terms of attributed revenue as a ratio against added costs. That sort of thing is very important for the business.”

Do you use the data to drive personalization?

S.F.: “Yes, there is so much more to learn, and the data is so rich that we grow more sophisticated as time goes on. Your viewing habits will increasingly drive the personalization of content that is available to you. But the data also enables us to improve the way we curate some of that content. For example, if you are watching a Bundesliga game live on a Friday evening, we can also ensure you see an interview we shot with the Borussia Dortmund manager, for instance, and position that piece of content before or after that match, as well as on the DAZN homepage. So, we create material that supports your engagement as a sports fan on the platform. Whether you are interested in boxing or mixed martial arts or football, baseball or whatever, there will be content about that available and visible for you on a personalized rail. And you can filter and search. We are always looking to bring added value to our viewers.”

Promotions and advertising are personalized as well?

 S.F.: “You could say sport events are designed for advertising, with natural breaks. The audience is used to it and in some cases, it is almost harder not to advertise.  We introduced advertising in 2019 and it works very well for us as a second revenue stream. In 2020 we are going to introduce greater personalization for our audience.

How far would you go with that?

S.F.: “When I was in India I was struck by the use of addressable advertising in cricket. During the break, they would put a soft drink advert on the wicket, which was quite impressive. But what works in one territory does not necessarily work in another.  And we need to work with the territories to make sure we do it properly, because no one size fits all. Like most, we are looking at anything innovative, but we would be very wary of doing anything that would be intrusive and interfere with engaging our audience.”

How is the Content Planning & Analysis department organized?
S.F.: “We are active in 9 territories across the world with teams in territories as well as teams centrally. We generally work to a 6-month and a 3-month schedule for our events. Centrally, we pull together all of the events for all of the territories. When our long-term schedulers start to look at the events that need to be planned, they work with placeholders as live events can easily change and not all data are known. The planners in territory then look at the production elements that are to be applied for that event. Will we localize it with one commentator? Or with a commentator and an analyst? Will we have an in-vision presentation?  Everything is then gathered centrally again and managed for broadcast in terms of 6 weeks. So we work both territorially and centrally, and what makes us very different from anyone else is the sheer scale of the number of events that we manipulate and manage. We have about 25,000 live sporting events a year, which I think is twice the amount managed by the largest linear service in the world. That meant we had to invent this workflow. It was one of the challenges of the last couple of years.”

“Automation can only be delivered in a system where WHATS’ON is a very important part.”

So taking some of the legwork out, is very much on your agenda for 2020?

S.F.: “Yes, things that can be suggested by automation and machine learning. And as with performance analysis, automation can only be delivered in a system where WHATS’ON is a very important part, simply because everything is tracked, everything is unique, and everything is measured and seen.”

Is every decision dictated by data nowadays?

S.F.: “No, if you just go by the numbers you will not necessarily touch the point where the audience is engaged or feels a brand affinity. There are various events that do exceptionally well perhaps not with huge volume audiences but with audiences that are incredibly loyal and if we did not have that on our platform they might not be quite as loyal to us. Especially with sports you need to build empathy, sympathy, and loyalty. But data does allow people to make informed decisions. Instinct and emotion will always be valuable as well as originality, as long as it is based on solid ground.”

“DAZN has more rights than anyone else, but we take a much more studied approach to what we acquire.”

How do you work together with the Content department and the Commercial Department?

S.F.: “As regards our collaboration with the content department, we don’t conceive formats of course, but we supply the team with data and trends based on what we get from analysis using WHATS’ON and other tools. We tell them if something is performing particularly well in a particular territory. The Content people will then use their ideas and originality to build on that, exploiting all that information for the success of the business.
As to the acquisition of rights, we are a voice in the room. The commercial department will look at those rights to see if it makes sense for our business, and then talk to us to see if it works for us in terms of capacity and broadcasting and how it sits with the other rights in that territory. Many years ago I worked with broadcasters where the commercial department said: these are the rights we bought, broadcast it. DAZN has more rights than anyone else, but we take a much more studied approach to what we acquire.”

How does DAZN work together with sport federations? Can you for instance influence the timing of sport events?

S.F.: “You know, rights work best where there are partnerships between the broadcaster and the federations, and DAZN has valuable relationships with a number of federations, such as WTA in tennis and FIBA in basketball. We talk to each other all the time, and, yes, it happens that they ask for our thoughts about the best day and time for an event.”

Sport federations increasingly go direct to fan and launch their own OTT platform. Does that pose competition for DAZN? 

 S.F.: “I am sure there is a place for single sport OTTs, and they can operate in conjunction and together with mixed OTTs like ours. But I believe what we are offering as multisport and only-sport OTT is unique.
There is a world where OTT, linear and different services can exist together. We carry the Eurosport channels on our platform in Europe for instance, and a number of linear services sit on a platform in a number of territories, not just Europe, where we kind of co-exist.  So if you want to watch a La Liga match on an OTT service in Germany, for instance, you can. But you can also watch the Eurosport channel for winter sports, or perhaps the Olympic Games. So I think there is a mixed environment out there. I think people will work together for the sake of the customer, and that is already happening.”

 Tell us about the challenges of broadcasting live events

S.F.: “I don’t know about you but when I watch my favourite team I start watching 5 or 10 minutes before the game. Most people do. In fact, 85 % of the DAZN audience comes on at the same time to watch a live event. That is why we generally start less than 15 minutes before the game. That presents huge logistic challenges for our Operational Management and Product team, because we go from zero to hero in 15 minutes. It was hard to get that right in the beginning, but it works. Remember that the challenges of live sports are radical. If there is a bit of buffering during a movie, you can live with it, but if you miss a goal, you are less happy.
Our incident management teams are brutal in their assessment of anything that goes wrong, and we double down as quickly as we can to fix any issues. But I can say we have very few issues.”

“With WHATS’ON we can do contingency scheduling whenever desirable.”

Sport matches are notoriously hard to predict. How do you deal with contingencies? A tennis match that gets rained off, for instance?

 S.F.: “One of the great benefits of WHATS’ON is that we can do contingency scheduling whenever we think that is desirable, which is mostly for sports like tennis or cricket or any event where the duration is fluid or influenced by the weather or results. So if a tennis match finishes early or is rained off we can always switch to the contingency schedule. But contingency scheduling is much more a linear issue than it is a nonlinear issue, because OTT services don’t live with the tyranny of the live schedule.

With rights also come obligations and restrictions. How do you keep track of all that?

S.F.: “If we have an obligation to broadcast in a specific language, for instance, we will make sure that this is entered in our database, in our rights agreements and in WHATS’ON. The same with restrictions. Take Serie A. We have the rights for Germany, but not for Switzerland.
We also have obligations to broadcast additional content. For the UEFA Champions League, for instance, we are not only obligated to broadcast a number of matches but also a number of magazine programmes, highlights and sponsorships. As we have the UEFA Champions League in Germany, Canada and Japan, that is a complex issue for us. You can have a huge number of concurrent games on a Tuesday and Wednesday evening, for instance, which should all have the right bumpers and branding for the different territories.  We use WHATS’ON to manage all that, in addition to our other tools.”

What are the main challenges for DAZN in 2020? 

S.F.: “At a recent management conference our CEO Simon Denyer said: “One of the biggest challenges is to keep being DAZN, to keep doing the things that got us where we are today.”   The biggest challenge for us going forward is to continue to be who we are, but also marry that with maximizing engagement with the audience and continuing to not only understand what the audience wants but deliver it to them and encourage them to watch more. Encouraging engagement while maintaining our DNA will be key.”

How Scott Ferguson met MEDIAGENIX and WHATS’ON

“I first met Emmanuel in 2008 , when I worked at Al Jazeera in the Middle East (Emmanuel Müller is Managing Director Americas & VP Business Development at MEDIAGENIX, ed). He arrived with a box of Belgian chocolates and a conversation about a scheduling system. What really appealed to me when I first saw WHATS’ON, was that the interface felt intuitive. That is very important. If you are looking at a screen all day, as our planners are, you need something that works with you and not against you. Over the years I have seen a number of software systems and scheduling systems that feel like they are managing you instead of you managing them.
I met the company again when I moved to BeIN Sports a couple of years later and Emmanuel and Albert (MEDIAGENIX Business Consultant, ed) came back with more Belgian chocolates. I had a voice in the decision to introduce WHATS’ON to BeIN Sports. And then when I came here at DAZN, three years ago, and heard what the plans of the company were and what they asked me to do, within a month I sent a message to Emmanuel, saying: “Can you come over and bring some Belgian chocolates? I think we need to talk”. That was in February 2017.  They sat down with our commercial, technical, engineering and finance people. I was not involved in the discussions, because I knew the company and the people involved, but 3 to 5 months later after due diligence with alternative products, the company chose WHATS’ON as the software we were going to use to drive everything. In many ways that was the validation of my initial impression all those years ago. It was also a validation of the customer service I got from building a relationship with people like Emmanuel and Nick (Business Development, ed). The MEDIAGENIX people are committed to learning from every customer and then enrich their product accordingly for all customers to enjoy. A third important factor was the ability of WHATS’ON to speak to multiple other tools. So what sets MEDIAGENIX apart is the customer service, the quality of the product and WHATS’ON’s openness.”

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