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The Irishman behind the European Broadcasting Union’s biggest deal, securing rights to the Olympic games



The snowfall is heavy in Geneva, Switzerland, the morning after the triumphant return of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to the Olympic podium.

“It’s such a relief,” says Glen Killane, executive director of Eurovision Sport, a division of the public service media alliance.

His great exhale follows the signing of a major broadcast and digital rights deal that will see dozens of EBU free-to-air broadcasters, including RTÉ, and global media giant Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) share the European rights to action at four Olympic Games up to 2032.

“It is probably the biggest deal the EBU has ever done,” he says.

With a winter warm spell in early January prompting the closure of snow-deprived ski resorts across the Alps, the whiter weather is also good news – not least because, as we speak, Alpine skiing events to which the EBU owns the media rights are about to begin a six-hour drive away in Kitzbühel, Austria, where Killane is soon headed.

The distance between the EBU and the IOC didn’t sit well with broadcasters that had kept the Olympic brand in the cultural mainstream in Europe for more than half a century

It has been a good couple of months for the Irishman, with the finish line on the 200-page joint EBU-WBD agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) crossed late on Christmas Eve – at about 10pm, Irish time – after “hundreds and hundreds of hours” of work by his team.

“I was at home and on the blower to [EBU director general] Noel Curran, saying can we get you and [EBU president] Delphine [Ernotte Cunci] to sign this, please.”

Killane, a former RTÉ executive, has been working on rebuilding the EBU’s relationship with the IOC ever since he joined the Swiss-based organisation in August 2018, initially as Eurovision Sport’s deputy director.

The beautiful friendship between the broadcasting union and the Olympics powers-that-be had endured for 56 years before its unceremonious severing in 2012.

That was when the EBU, which collectively negotiates rights on behalf of its members, was outbid by the sports marketing agency Sportfive in an auction for rights to Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 in 40 of its markets. It lost out again in 2015, when Discovery Communications, as it then was, swooped for the four subsequent Olympics (two winter, two summer), up to and including Paris 2024.

Thanks to a string of sub-licensing arrangements – some of them agreed more smoothly than others – many television viewers across Europe won’t have noticed or cared about the change.

But the distance between the EBU and the IOC didn’t sit well with broadcasters that had kept the Olympic brand in the cultural mainstream in Europe for more than half a century.

“That was a bit of an anomaly and something I wanted to put right,” says Killane of the EBU’s out-in-the-cold status.

The estrangement between it and the IOC seemed ever odder in light of the latter’s need and desire for free-to-air coverage. And with 90 per cent of the viewership continuing to come from EBU members anyway, relying on secondary sub-licensing deals just didn’t seem fair in his eyes.

“It was as if our members were paying for a business class seat, but then someone else claimed their ticket and they were left sitting down the back,” he says.

As befits any Olympic process, several years of determination, “fairly hard work” and eyes-on-the-prize optimism went into the EBU’s preparation to win rights to the next four games.

For Los Angeles 2028, RTÉ will have rights to 270 hours on television, ‘considerably above the 200-hour minimum’

Realising that no single bidder would be able to fulfil the terms of the IOC’s tender without recourse to a partner, Killane – newly promoted to executive director – began holding “serious conversations” with his Discovery counterpart Andrew Georgiou about a team-up that would marry EBU members’ national audience reach with Discovery’s pan-European streaming capabilities.

The starting gun on the secret talks sounded when Killane met Georgiou at the postponed Tokyo 2020 games, aka the “Covid games”, in the summer of 2021.

At this point, Eurosport owner Discovery was already on track to becoming WBD after the announcement of a proposed mega-merger between the incumbent Olympic rights holders and WarnerMedia, the owner of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros film and television assets. Killane’s sense was that this was a company searching for efficiencies.

“They were a different entity to the entity that bought the rights in 2015.”

On the quiet, the EBU and Discovery spent months finessing a sprawling, multifaceted agreement, the terms of which vary for each of the 49 territories involved and shift from games to games. When the IOC launched its formal invitation to tender in the spring of 2022, the two parties were ready to go in together.

They became the IOC’s preferred bidder last August, then spent the rest of 2022 negotiating the final terms of a deal that begins with the 2026 winter games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo and also encompasses Los Angeles 2028, the 2030 winter games in an undecided location and Brisbane 2032.

The deal is understood to be at least as big as the €1.3 billion Discovery paid the IOC in 2015, and given that price tag didn’t include the 2018 and 2020 rights in two of Europe’s biggest markets, the UK and France, it may well be more.

The EBU-WBD pact is not a financially equal one, however – in sporting terms, it is not the media rights equivalent of Tokyo champions Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi agreeing to share high-jump gold.

“We’re the majority payer because of our size and scale,” says Killane.

I see the Olympics as a starting point, not an end point

The split on the spoils is also complex. Participating EBU members will show “broad” free-to-air coverage, with a minimum 200 hours of the summer games and 100 hours of the winter games on television. They will also have some live-streaming rights. But the extent of the rights changes from market to market, depending on financial firepower and various negotiating positions and wrangles.

For Los Angeles 2028, RTÉ will have rights to 270 hours on television, “considerably above the 200-hour minimum”. It will also have the right to stream this linear channel coverage digitally and “opt in” to a second concurrent stream if there is an Irish Olympian chasing a medal elsewhere. For Brisbane 2032, RTÉ’s digital rights will improve to include a second full live-stream.

“RTÉ now has a direct relationship with the IOC and I know that sounds ephemeral, but it’s important,” says Killane.

While RTÉ’s Los Angeles rights will closely resemble what it obtained from Discovery for Tokyo 2020, the new deal brings visible gains to other EBU members. Finnish broadcaster Yle, for instance, couldn’t show ice hockey under its sub-licensing contract with Discovery. From 2026, it can.

Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s SVT haven’t broadcast the Olympics since 2012, but the digitally advanced media markets of Norway and Sweden are set to become two of the six territories where WBD’s streaming rights to “every moment” of the games will not be exclusive.

These “every moment” rights are what WBD has been using to encourage sign-ups to Discovery Plus, the streaming service it is expected to rename.

During Tokyo 2020, when sports fans in Britain realised they would have to pay up for full live-stream access, BBC-bashing headlines ensued. The BBC was a victim of its own success here – for Rio 2016, it had offered viewers 24 separate live-streams. Those same viewers were dismayed to learn it could now only show two streams at once, having “traded in” full digital rights to 2018 and 2020 in order to secure free-to-air coverage from Discovery for 2022 and 2024.

Its rights for 2026-2032 will be similarly “slimline”, as the Times put it, but Killane doesn’t believe the criticism is warranted. In his view, the compromises made by the BBC represent good value-for-money.

The terms of the new deal will lead to fewer social media restrictions, he says, and is flexible enough to leave “the door open” for possible future evolution in the industry. If audiences across Europe decamp en masse to the metaverse sometime between now and Brisbane, EBU members “won’t be disenfranchised”.

A key plus for Killane is that members from the “Big Five” – Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy, known in Eurovision Song Contest land as the semi-final skippers – all joined in with the EBU this time around, rather than trying to cut their own deals.

“It makes sense, even for the bigger guys, for us to work together and not be picked off one by one,” he says, crediting Curran, his former boss at RTÉ, with helping him sell the merits of the collective approach.

For France Télévisions, led by the EBU’s Ernotte Cunci, the new deal means it can build on the legacy of Paris 2024, Killane notes. But a lot is riding on the French games for the IOC, too. The pandemic inevitably dampened spirits right across the world of sport and, although the television audiences “didn’t drift terribly”, the Olympics were not immune. In the end, it was “miraculous” that both Tokyo and Beijing 2022 went ahead.

“It wasn’t a lot of laughs,” he says of his five-day visit to Tokyo. “It was a privilege to be there, to be one of the few, but there was no atmosphere. For the athletes, it wasn’t the typical Olympic experience.”

One new entry in the EBU’s portfolio, meanwhile, is the European Games, which takes place in Poland this summer and features 17 qualification events for Paris. “It’s our first foray into it and part of our Olympic relationship, part of our road to Paris.”

On some levels, the pragmatic Olympic hook-up with WBD shouldn’t be a surprise. The EBU, which counts TG4 among its membership as well as RTÉ, has regularly done business with WBD on events including the World Athletics Championships and cycling’s Tour de France and La Vuelta Grand Tour races. And it was the EBU’s sports rights holdings that was the impetus for the 1989 establishment of Eurosport in the first place.

The Olympics deal “shows that we can partner really well with large commercial companies”, according to Killane.

His mission to reposition the EBU at the forefront of sport in Europe has only just begun, he stresses, when I subtly ask him if he might be tempted by a return home.

As an ex-managing director of RTÉ Television as well as its former head of sport – and with a stint at Eir also under his belt – he would be a well-qualified candidate for the just-advertised post of RTÉ director general.

But, having taken up the executive director role just months into a travel-constrained pandemic, the appeal of his gig in snowy Geneva, gateway to the Alps, is still bright. And there are things to do – among them, the launch of a pan-European free sports streaming platform, a key focus over the coming year.

“I see the Olympics as a starting point, not an end point,” he says. “For me, it’s the dream job.”

CV

Name: Glen Killane

Age: 50

Position: Executive director of Eurovision Sport at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)

Background and family: He grew up in Malahide, Dublin, and now commutes between Geneva, where the EBU is based, and Julianstown, Co Meath, where he and his wife Fiona Fetherston have four children between them, ranging in age from four to 22.

Something you might expect: He enjoys a hike.

Something that might surprise: After starting his career as a subeditor in RTÉ Sport – a role he saw advertised while completing a Masters in journalism at DCU – he was appointed as RTÉ head of sport at “the tender age of 32″.



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