Eleven Sports COO Anouk Mertens discusses ambitions to expand and innovate in both the delivery and production arms of the business.
Serving sports fans globally, Eleven Sports saw an opportunity to provide audiences an alternative to what founders Andrea Radrizzani and Marc Watson “saw as a stagnant and fragmented sports media market.”
The company was established as a new platform available across both linear and OTT services with the aim to put sports fans back at the centre of entertainment.
Joining Eleven as managing director of Belgium in 2015 ahead of its launch, Anouk Mertens was then promoted to chief operating officer in November 2018: “It’s been quite a ride so far,” she tells IBC365
“My job was to establish Eleven in the Belgium market and create the foundations for a good and sustainable business.”
Responsible for the operator deals, logistics of the production as well as building a team, Mertens worked to create a compelling alternative for sports fans in Belgium.
She says that a combination of “good rights and a great group of people” saw the channel become profitable by its third year.
The Belgium native has worked in the broadcast industry since 2002 when, after starting her own IT-security company, she moved into producing live World Cup 2002 shows for Broodkast in Belgium.
Previously she worked for cable operator Telenet under the Liberty Global brand to launch their video on demand (VOD) service and was the vice president of television, responsible for the overall TV strategy, running the day to day management of channels, streaming video on demand (SVOD) offering, owned pay movie and sport services.
She enjoyed the challenges of a start up company and Eleven’s vision of establishing a culture and footprint in the market made her move to Eleven a no-brainer.
“The experience from setting up the Belgian operation from scratch was something I love to share with our teams in other territories,” she explains: “It is a really enriching thing to be able to work with local teams and learn about new territories, market dynamics and cultural differences.”
Her main priority today includes managing budgets, tracking market performance and identifying opportunities for Eleven to enter new territories and launch new services.
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“We are a very entrepreneurial company, always looking to innovate so there are lots of other things that come up.
A passion of Mertens is the recent launch of a new production arm of the business called Neo Studios where she has been working as the executive producer on Neo’s debut project, the documentary Take us home: Leeds United, which launched worldwide on Amazon last summer.
As the traditional sports media market has become what Mertens describes as “fragmented and stagnant in many countries,” Eleven was created to serve global sports fans who were getting mixed deals in the traditional media industry.
Playing to win
“What Eleven offers is flexibility and a platform-agnostic approach. We want to make sure fans can engage with our content when and where they want,” she says.
“For that, we partner with linear platforms, but we also have an OTT offering available on web, apps, smart TVs and through integrations in popular football apps.”
Last year Eleven made a deal with the leading football app One Football to make live sport available to fans through the app, in a bid to engage younger audiences through their medium of choice.
“Younger fans want a more active watching experience and we are always trying to innovate our digital offering,” she adds.
One of Eleven’s most recent innovations is the introduction of Watch Together, a virtual skype-style living room which allows fans to watch live sports together with family, friends as well as fellow fans and influencers.
“It means fans can share their favourite sporting moments with whoever they choose, and it’s really working.
“Watch time via Watch Together versus our regular channels is 60%+ higher for some matches. The tool was an industry first idea for Eleven so we’re very proud of that.”
The digital divide
At Eleven, digital innovation remains key, she explains, pointing to developments such as Watch Together which “adds to the fan experience”.
As well as competitive pricing and flexible packages its all-in subscriptions are designed for fans who want to access all of Eleven’s content while smaller packages and pay per view are for those consumers less willing to part with monthly payments.
“Really engaging with our fans,” is also a priority, Mertens says: “We do that through our social channels, local fan events like screenings and parties with legendary players, and through our live broadcasts too which are quite interactive.”
Capitalising on the power and popularity of individual stars, like Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo, Eleven has included the rights for Juventus TV and the Champions League to enable local fans to watch every minute of club football Ronaldo plays.
However, its social strategy varies from market to market: “In Belgium, Portugal and Poland for instance, we are focused on premium rights and our objective is to bring lots of top tier content together and become the leading sports platform in those markets.
“In those markets we have secured football rights like Champions League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A as well as competitions like NBA, F1, NFL and UFC.”
While other markets its focus is on delivering sport for underserves fans.
Mertens explains: “Our OTT platforms in Italy and Japan offer Serie C and Serie D football and lower league baseball.
“The fact that fans now can follow their favourite teams live everywhere has a big value for them, and we are experienced in efficient production so we can bring this content to supporters at a low price and still create a very effective business in those markets.”
Admitting “we don’t always get it right” she says the opportunity to deliver content fans want means Eleven can shift this as necessary.
As the company grows and harnesses more data analytics to inform decisions the company can gain valuable insights into what its consumers are watching and what they’re interested in viewing in the future.
“We are ambitious, and we want to continue to grow,” she explains Eleven’s plans for the next 12 months: “We are looking at new markets, some new rights and we have some new ideas to continue innovating our platforms.
“If you look back over the past four years, we have grown pretty quickly, and we want to continue that trajectory in 2020.”
Changing the rules
Ultimately the business is built around a product that aims to give meaningful and tailored experiences around the way sport can be consumed and key to this is having access to compelling rights packages.
From premium audiovisual rights like football and F1 - which Eleven has secured the rights to in Portugal and Poland – to, as Mertens explains, a collection of various local sports rights.
Mertens adds: “In Italy, we are bringing all Serie C and big Serie D games to a really dedicated group of fans who never had the opportunity to watch all of their team’s games before and we can see that model working too.”
With such a compelling offering its no surprise the business has gone from strength to strength, however, Mertens explains attracting new subscribers for OTT is incredibly demanding, especially when entering a new market.
What she’s learnt is the importance of building a brand and telling customers what you are all about.
“We invest in some marketing of course but are looking to create partnerships in each of our markets. Partnerships with operators, online media partners, free-to-air broadcasters and social media channels.”
It has tested streaming games live on Facebook to tease the market and have bundled subscriptions with smart TV providers.
On piracy concerns, Mertens adds: “It’s an existential problem for the media and entertainment industries and for live sport. We want to work with legislators and other media organisations to fight it.
“The most powerful thing we can do though is offer fans the best user experience we possibly can, which includes great picture quality, no glitches, digital innovations like Watch Together and a very competitive price.”