Long reads


This sporting life

The winner of the first ever Content Innovation Award for Outstanding Digital Achievement, DAZN’s chief product officer Ben Lavender discusses disruption in the live sports space. Andy Fry reports.

It’s not the first time Ben Lavender has up-ended the digital apple cart. Earlier in his career he enabled the BBC to transform itself into a multiplatform media company by inventing the iPlayer. From there, he went on to develop LoveFilm’s SVOD service, staying on when the company was acquired as part of Amazon’s global expansion.

When DAZN owner Perform Group came calling in May 2015, Lavender says “he bit their hand off” at the prospect of spearheading the launch of the nascent business. Since then, he has built a team of 60 and rolled out the service into the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Japan and Italy. The plan, he says, is “to be in 20 markets by 2020 and, ultimately, make DAZN a global service”.

By the time DAZN opened for business in Italy this summer, the service had already streamed 200 million hours since launch. The foundation of that rapid growth has been DAZN’s ability to acquire live sports rights that fans are willing to pay for – though the exact profile of the service varies market by market: “In Japan, DAZN has everything except Sumo – it’s the gold standard,” says Lavender.

“We also have a very extensive set of rights in our most recent launch market Italy, including live Serie A. But right now the model is different in the US, where DAZN is currently focused on fight sports – via partnerships with the likes of Matchroom Boxing and MMA promoter Bellator. “The key point is that the service is designed to be hyper-local. Although we are a global brand, the operation is tailored specifically to local fans.”

Owning live rights is not, in itself, enough to succeed in the sports sector, however. There are several other dimensions to DAZN that have enabled it to gain traction in an arena that has traditionally been dominated by telcos, cablers and DTH platforms. One of the most important has been its ability to meet the high expectations of sports fans, says Lavender.

“People often describe us as the ‘Netflix of sport’. But that comparison only goes so far because the core of our content is live. If Netflix has an issue with buffering on a drama, viewers may be mildly annoyed but they’ll just rewind and watch again. But if our fans miss a key moment of action like a goal, they go berserk.”

It’s a similar issue with latency, he says, “The last thing you want is for a fan to see a Twitter update before they see the action on TV. We’ve worked very hard to bring latency down from around 60 seconds to around 20-30 seconds depending on the device involved.”

Getting the best possible quality of service is not straightforward in markets like Italy, he adds. “We’ve enjoyed really rapid growth in Italy,” he says, “But one of the challenges there is the variation in the quality of broadband across the country. In Milan, it’s comparable to Germany, but it degrades the further south you go through Italy. That means exploring every aspect of encoding and production workflow to ensure we are delivering the best quality service everywhere.”

Alongside robust quality of service, Lavender has overseen DAZN’s efforts to be distributed as widely as possible. “If content is king, then distribution is queen,” he says. “We’re available on just about every device you can think of, and are also integrated into several third party offers. So in Germany, for example, you’ll find DAZN bundled into Amazon Fire. And in Italy, DAZN is now available alongside Netflix on Sky Q.”

At last count, DAZN was available on 22 different devices in Italy, he adds, a key factor in driving what he describes as “phenomenal growth”. This kind of wide availability, combined with DAZN’s competitive pricing strategy, is also key to combatting piracy.

There has also been great emphasis on enriching the overall range of the viewing experience. “We’re like a broadcaster, with a schedule,” he explains. “So that has meant investment in original production to support the live rights we own. At the same time, we have also invested in the live production itself. So in the case of Japan, we’ve increased the number of cameras at games from three to 15, which gives it a professionalism the market has never seen before. It’s even had a positive impact on the number of people attending live fixtures.”

To outsiders, DAZN’s sudden arrival on the live sports scene may seem a surprise. But Lavender puts it down to two elements. The first is that DAZN and parent company Perform belong to Access Industries, an investment vehicle created by billionaire Len Blavatnik – “you need deep pockets to be in this business and he is very supportive,” says Lavender. The second is the operational expertise Perform built up before launching DAZN: “Perform already had a real heritage in sports production, working with the likes of WTA, ITV and the betting industry. In addition, it owns sports data provider Opta Sports, which has a lot of strong relationships with sports rights holders.”

Lavender believes the data expertise is going to be even more significant going forward in terms of informing the DAZN offer. “I don’t mean we’re going to throw masses of data at viewers, but we have some interesting ideas about the way we can leverage data to tell stories.”

In terms of other forward-looking themes, Lavender says DAZN will be adding multiscreen functionality and a new download feature in the near future. Personalisation is another key emerging area: “We already have a favourites feature that reminds a fan’s device when their favourite team is playing. We’re also looking at additional developments around content discovery and browsing.”

Lavender is not able to reveal which markets DAZN will enter next, but he does share some of the key processes and parameters that guide decision-making: “Sport is expensive, highly competitive and hard to get off the ground. But we are very agile and have a large research team that scrutinises local market opportunities. The kind of things we take into account are broadband penetration and coverage, as well as average speed; the available rights; the breakdown of sports fans by sport; and the propensity of people in that market to pay for rights.”

As an executive who has had serial success at a range of digital ventures – culminating in his CIA Award – what lessons have served him best in his career to date? “VOD is a tough business, and sport is perhaps the most difficult area of the lot. So doing it right isn’t about one person, it’s about the team. I’ve worked with a core group of people down the years who are smart, passionate and easy to work with. This is a demanding business where fans have high expectations, so we have to keep pushing ourselves to go as quickly as possible.”

Career in brief

Ben Lavender has been at the forefront of technology and innovation for over twenty years. After early stints at Walt Disney, MTV, and Channel 5, he changed the TV game as inventor of the BBC iPlayer. In 2011, The Observer recognised that achievement when it named Lavender as one of the world’s ten leading technology and internet innovators (alongside the likes of Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Musk).

From the BBC, Lavender moved to LoveFilm, where he led the design and development of its SVOD service from start-up to launch via the web, mobile and TV devices in UK and Germany. This led to LoveFilm being acquired by Amazon Video in 2012. Lavender followed, and stewarded the migration of 2 plus million customers to Amazon Instant Video and the launch of Prime Instant Video on TV platforms in the UK and Germany.

As chief product officer for DAZN, Lavender has led the design and development of DAZN from start-up to launch in Canada, Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and now Italy and the US this summer. In terms of rights, DAZN’s roster currently includes a wide range of elite soccer, fight sports, rugby, darts, NHL, MLB and some motorsports.