Fantasy football chases sponsors

ITV’s snatching of the BBC’s Fantasy Football League from under the public service broadcaster’s nose began in a blaze of glory last September.

But it is proving difficult to find a broadcast sponsor for what should be one of the most attractive shows on the network this summer. The sticking points are the 3m price tag attached to the show and, according to media and sponsorship sources, interference from the show’s production company, Avalon.

The price of the show has plummeted from a joint airtime and sponsorship package priced originally at 3m for the 16 half hour shows, to the current sponsorship-only deal priced at 850,000. Three weeks ago Carlsberg was close to tying up with the show, now renamed Fantasy World Cup. However, new marketing director Doug Clydesdale, who replaced Doug Scott in January, thought the money would be better spent on TV spot advertising. So the deal collapsed.

The show began looking for sponsors last December (MW December 12 1997). Five months later the show is still looking for a broadcast backer.

When the network switch was announced, hosts Frank Skinner and David Baddiel said they had been continually asked to revive the show, which was killed off earlier in the year. ITV made an offer they could not refuse and Skinner said: “We thought ‘Why are we being so poncy about it? Let’s milk it until its dead.'”

Carlton director of Sponsorship David Prosser, whose task it is to sell the show, must now wonder if the programme is already dead.

Blair Krempel managing director of sponsorship consultants Sponsorvision says: “The series was ridiculously overpriced when it originally came on to the market, but now that it has come down I thought that a beer company or any brand which targets the youth market would have been falling over themselves to get it.”

But it seems the other aspect holding up the deal, the involvement of a strong independent production company, is also frustrating potential sponsors. Avalon not only makes the programme but are also theatrical agents for Baddiel and Skinner.

To an extent the ITV network is venturing into Channel Four territory. The fourth channel uses strong production houses like Hat-trick, which make Drop The Dead Donkey, or Rapido, producer of Eurotrash and The Girlie Show.

In contrast, most ITV programmes are made by companies which are part of the ITV network. When it commissions outside production houses, it puts up the money for the show and therefore bargains from a position of strength. The difference is that Fantasy World Cup is an existing show (albeit with an altered name), with big stars and an entrepreneurial production company used to having greater freedom under BBC production agreements.

These production companies are notoriously sensitive about broadcast sponsorship. It took a year for the Chris Evans-owned Ginger Productions to agree a 1m deal with the soft drink maker Irn Bru to sponsor TFI Friday. In January Rapido quashed a 500,000 Channel 4 deal which would have seen Orangina sponsor Eurotrash although the deal is now back on.

One senior ITV sales house source says: “There is a complexity to this deal (Fantasy Football) that we don’t normally come across at ITV.” This is shorthand for Avalon’s involvement.

Media buyers who have approached the project say that Avalon holds the right to veto the show’s sponsor, or at least has a major say, as to which sponsor comes on board. The production company is also understood to want the broadcast sponsors to partner it in setting up licensing and merchandising rights, which it retains.

One media buyer who has met with Avalon says: “Avalon has made it clear that in order for it to approve a sponsor, you have got to do a lot of other stuff in the merchandising and licensing area.”

However, Prosser describes relations with Avalon as “cordial” and denies that the production company has the right of veto over the broadcast sponsor. He adds: “Production companies do not sit in on negotiations with clients. They have no idea of the airtime value of their shows.”

The decision whether a show will be sponsored is taken between the network and the production company when the show is initially commissioned, and written into the contract.

A spokesman for Avalon refused to discuss the details of its contract with ITV, but added: “The sales houses of ITV are responsible for the commercial interests of the show. Our responsibility is to deliver a top quality entertainment show.”

Avalon’s bullish stance over its rights to Fantasy Football is part of an increasing trend by production companies to secure advertiser-funding. Increasingly production companies are going straight to clients and their media agencies with broadcast sponsorship propositions for pilot shows, which they hope will make the programme more attractive to a potential broadcaster.

Andy Roberts, buying director at media agency Motive says: “It’s a better way than advert isers thinking they can make programmes because it’s not their core competence.”

Laurence Munday, joint managing director at Drum PHD, says: “Advertiser-funded programmes are becoming a lot more appealing as the number of TV channels increases. Production companies also make more money than from just commissioning. It is very difficult to sustain quality programmes on some of today’s commissioning rates.”

As TV continues to fragment, with digital only months away, networks had better get used to the fact that production companies which hold the talent are also intent on wagging the dog.

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