Setanta shoots for the top of the league


26 Nov 2003

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An Irish software and content firm has catapulted itself to the front rank of Irish mobile content providers thanks to a handful of new contracts it has signed with international customers. In the past few weeks, Setanta Media has inked four new deals, three in Canada and one in China, that have given it a strong foothold in new markets.

Setanta Media is a division of Setanta Sport (www.setanta.com), the well known sports broadcaster that gives ex-pat communities in the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere live access to major sporting events such as Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) matches, Rugby World Cup games, Premiership football and soccer internationals through a network of bars and clubs. The company also recently won the rights to broadcast 15 Premiership games live in Ireland next season.

Setanta Media is a relatively small part of this business but it has grown rapidly since it was established four years ago. This business unit distributes coverage of key sporting events such as European golf, rugby, soccer and Formula 1 to mobile devices. Users can subscribe to a variety of services including live text alerts and daily news alerts or can access web-based information via Wap.

Based in Dublin, with satellite offices in London and Vancouver, Setanta Media has an annual turnover of almost €3m and a staff of 25. This turnover is expected rise substantially as a result of the Canadian and Chinese deals. In Canada, two of the largest mobile networks – Bell Canada with nine million subscribers and Telus with eight million – have agreed to carry Setanta’s sporting content. Setanta has also signed up a third customer: the Vancouver Canucks, a top professional ice hockey team, whose supporters will be able to book tickets and receive ticket alerts via short messaging service (SMS) and access club news via Wap. While less lucrative than the other two, this is nevertheless a prestige deal – the equivalent to doing a deal with Manchester United in the UK market.

Referring to the Bell and Telus deals, Setanta Media’s CEO Frank Cronin, said he would be pleased if 20,000 customers sign up to the sports service in the short-term and “absolutely thrilled” if this number was 50,000 or more. While Canadian operators offer some local sports services to their customers, the Setanta link-up represents the first time that international sporting coverage has been provided to mobile customers and the first time also that advanced technology such as picture messaging is being used to deliver up-to-the-minute sports results and information.

It might be imagined that there would be limited demand for such coverage but Cronin claims otherwise. “There’s a lot of people interested in Formula 1, while Manchester United and soccer in general have become very popular over there,” he remarks.

As Setanta has negotiated a revenue-sharing agreement with its clients the eventual value of the contracts will largely depend on how popular its services become, but Cronin is confident that the three deals will yield revenues running into seven figures. However, important though they are, he sees these deals as mere stepping-stones to a much bigger prize.

“The important thing for us is to develop a presence in the US and Canadian marketplace so that we become a credible supplier of data services. When the time comes to supply video [over 3G networks], we’ll be in a position to do that as well, which is going to be really exciting for us,” he says. “We’re uniquely well placed because we’re part of a rights-buying, broadcasting and video feeds management company. So we’ve got all the infrastructure in place to manage that and if we get the mobile operators in place we then have the total offering under our belt.”

If Setanta Media’s North American business is looking promising, its Chinese venture is even more so. The company established a bridgehead into China in October when it signed a contract with Yangtze Telecom Corporation, an aggregator of content such as SMS and voice information services to major Chinese telcos.

The company has an active research and development programme focused on creating innovative SMS services. Under its agreement with Setanta, Yangtze will add coverage of European sports and possibly NBA basketball to the range of SMS services offered to the subscriber base of China’s big two mobile operators, China Unicom and China Mobile. These services are currently limited to two provinces – Chongqing and Hubei – where the networks have 7.5 million subscribers between them, but Yangtze expects to offer its SMS services to mobile phone users in five provinces by the end of this year and a total of 11 provinces by the end of 2004.

Cronin is excited about the scale of the Chinese market and the opportunity it presents. “These two operators have 180 million subscribers between them and are adding two million subscribers a month. It’s just incredible. And apparently they’re big data users so it’s going to be very interesting,” he says.

Setanta Media has launched its international expansion from a solid foundation in Europe. From its head office just off Dublin’s George’s Quay the company provides the sporting content for Vodafone Ireland and has deals in the UK and Europe based on sport, principally soccer and Formula One. Setanta also does the online ticketing for the GAA and provides content for its website.

According to Cronin, these contracts, particularly that with Vodafone, have given it the credibility to compete in overseas markets. “Vodafone is one of the leading international telcos in data development and creation … It has given us the confidence and the ability to develop a worldwide business on the back of theirs. This allows us to go to places such as North America and China, and be more advanced than any other content provider in the local market.”

Setanta Media’s successes in Canada and China will rightly be seen as confirmation that a small Irish business can compete with the best in the world, but to Cronin it is simply another chapter in the Setanta success story. “It’s just a different channel,” he concludes. “It’s Setanta broadening its delivery systems. We’re just trading on the back of the credibility that the mother ship gives us.”

By Brian Skelly