Optus needs new strategy after EPL own goal

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 4 May 2016
Arvind Hickman

It wasn't supposed to go like this. Riding on the crest of Leicester City's remarkable Premier League victory, Optus marketing executives must have thought the telco's announcement of its English Premier League pricing plans would be the icing on the cake.

But what could have been a golden opportunity, has turned into a PR disaster. Any euphoria fans may have experienced with the Foxes fairytale ending has been replaced with anger and resentment across social media and in comment sections of media sites - and rightfully so.

How Optus compares

Optus is offering the EPL as part of bundle packages, but only to Optus broadband and postpaid mobile customers, who will pay $15 extra per month unless they are on an $85 plan, when it becomes complimentary.

For non-Optus customers, you'll need to rip up your current postpaid mobile or broadband arrangement and switch over, incurring whatever costs are involved.

In the UK, BT does it differently, and Optus could have taken a leaf from its books. This season, BT Sport 1, BT Sport 2, ESPN and BT Sport Europe were free to all BT customers, and cost £13.50 per month for Sky customers, the UK's equivalent of Fox Sports.

BT only carries one EPL game per week compared to Optus showing all, but also has every Champions League encounter and fixtures from other top European leagues. BT's offering is made richer by employing top pundits like Stephen Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Linekar and a host of others to front its coverage.

From what I can gather, Optus will use matchday coverage from other broadcasters overseas and the telco hasn't made it clear how it plans to localise its EPL offering.

For the price, what BT offers is more attractive, accessible and customer focused.

You can't force loyalty

Corporates that believe they can bully consumers into an outcome in this day and age are sorely out of touch. There is an endless choice of entertainment and you need to earn customer loyalty, not merely try and bludgeon it.

That Optus is using the EPL to gain market share comes as no surprise and should not be criticised - content plays by non-traditional media players are the way of the future and this was the only realistic way the telco could hope to recoup some or all of the $190 million fee it paid for EPL rights.

But forcing non-customers to switch over or go without is not the best way to go about it.

Firstly, it ignores the financial reality of many Australians who are locked into expensive mobile contracts with other providers and cannot afford to sever ties.

Secondly, it doesn't consider loyalty people have for rival Fox Sports, which provides a far more comprehensive football offering, plus a host of other sports and entertainment that Optus' Yes TV cannot match.

Few can even consider paying for both at these prices and only the most diehard Premier League supporter would ditch a vastly superior content offering for one or a few live games a week - remembering that diehard fans are tribal and won't watch everything for the sake of it.

Then there's the fact that technology and the internet provide ways to bypass official Premier League rights holders for those who are savvy and have little regard for the law.

Making matters worse is the telco's poor public relations skills - leaving customers (and the media) in the dark and frustrated. As a journalist I've tried to talk to Optus several times to provide more clarity to readers over its package, but it's fair to say PR is not the company's strong suit.

Time for a rethink

The good news for Optus is that it's not too late to rescue the situation. It could well be the telco is gauging public opinion and will come to market with a compromise.

If Optus is smart, at the very least it would offer a reasonably priced season pass - think of it as a grace period - in which non-customers can enjoy the EPL before being compelled to switch over. Or better yet, allow non-customers a permanent way to access the content and win them over through high quality service, although I wouldn't hold my breath for this option.

Allowing non-customer contracts to run their course will provide fans with the football they love and give Optus more time to work on its pricing formula, which many have already baulked at.

It's early days and there are still a few months before next season kicks off, but Optus can ill-afford to let this one ride out in the hope fans will quietly convert.

If there is one thing Leicester City has taught us - it's to never underestimate the underdog. But while Optus may treat EPL fans as minnows, in this game it is the corporate that has everything to prove.

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