DAZN’s Jamie Rice on UCL Final, Joshua’s First U.S. Fight and Original Global Content

Saturday night is a big one for the British sports history books. The day will feature a UEFA Champion’s League final between two British soccer teams, Liverpool FC and London’s Tottenham Hotspur F.C., and the nation’s once-in-a-generation boxing talent Anthony Joshua in his first U.S. fight when he heads to New York to face Andy Ruiz, Jr.

While both stand out among the most important one-off events of the year in their respective sports, each presents a different opportunity to upstart streaming sports platform DAZN. The company holds UCL rights in a number of major territories– Germany, Japan and Canada – and will be broadcasting Joshua’s fight in all nine of its current territories: U.S.A., Canada, Brazil, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Japan.

Whereas the Joshua-Ruiz Jr. fight holds a broad appeal and is the type of event via which DAZN expects to grow subscriber-base, the UCL final is a culmination of a season of hard work by the service’s production teams, which facilitates consumer retention more than bringing in new audiences en mass.

“The Joshua fight has a buzz and interest for serious and casual sports fans alike,” DAZN director of global production Jamie Rice said to Variety in an interview ahead of Saturday’s festivities. “Particularly in the U.S. market, having regular, big fights is important for our business because it drives acquisition,” he specified.

On the other hand, “The UCL final is a really important event, but for subscriptions it’s not that big for us, as we try to bring fans in over the course of the season,” he explained.

“What’s important is to show off how we handle tier-one big events. We are very deliberate in the way we showcase these events and the attention and care be bring to them. The viewers expect as much.”

One key similarity is the opportunity that the company sees in proving their quality with these types of big-ticket broadcasts. Whereas most of the service’s streams start five minutes before kickoff, on these special nights the service provides extra, and unique, before and after coverage.

DAZN has negotiated with UEFA, the organization which runs the Champion’s League, to ensure that in the case of the UCL final, their broadcast teams have access to the field until the last allowable second, in this case seven minutes before kickoff. Additionally, as they did after the Liverpool-Barcelona UCL semi-final, the post-game is allowed to unfold more organically with cameras and microphones dedicated to the action on the field and in the stands rather than cutting back to pundits to hear their point of view.

According to Rice, the hands-off approach was a major hit with Germany DAZN subscribers, the most important nation, in soccer terms, where DAZN has UCL rights at present, and home of Liverpool manager and German fan-favorite Jurgen Klopp.

“We give these big nights the stardust, but in a way that is true to us,” he described. “It’s gritty, it’s sports and that’s the focus. It’s not in studios, we’re not away from the action at any point. We’re on the field and in the ring for as long as possible.”

For Saturday night’s big fight, the pre-bout coverage will take place ringside, not in a studio or press box, and the post-fight coverage will be hosted from inside the ring, as soon as space is cleared.

The key facing DAZN, or any sports-dedicated streaming platform past or present – Setanta, ESPN, BeIN Sports, Mediaset – face in Europe are the national nature of sports popularity and broadcast rights, according to a December 2018 study by U.K.’s Enders Analysis.

One approach that DAZN now employs is taken straight from the model popularized by Netflix: Producing proprietary original content to which the platform holds exclusive international broadcast rights. To that end, the company has partnered with major filmmaking talent on a number of popular non-fiction productions.

“Live sports drive people to our platform, but on the back of that push is digital programming that will drive retention. We are doing that with originals we produce for the buildup to the fight and post-fight,” Rice explained of recent productions of their “40 Days” docu-specials, co-produced with LeBron James and Maverick Carter from Uniterrupted ahead of this month’s Canelo vs. Jacobs clash, and Meek Mill and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation for Saturday night’s Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz, Jr. bout.

The series focuses on the intense, daily grind that boxers experience in the eight weeks leading up to a fight.

“We are just starting our journey on original programming,” he went on. “When we set up in 2015 it was about live, and it still is mostly about live. That will continue to be what sports fans crave, live sports.”

“But we are very aware of the uniqueness of creating original content,” he went on. “From documentaries to original studio formats and original debate shows – particularly in the U.S. – that type of content is all crucially important for us.”

This week it was announced that DAZN, Mark Wahlberg’s Unrealistic Ideas and Emmy winner Peter Berg’s Film 45 have entered into a multi-series co-production agreement to produce original, unscripted content for the digital platform.

As DAZN moves forward then, it’s following a roadmap partially drawn by other major SVOD players before them, but partly of their own making, with live sports at the wheel and gritty original non-fiction programming riding shotgun.

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