SingTel, StarHub – BT

The bottom line is the scoreline for SingTel, StarHub

WITH less than six months to go before the world’s biggest football event kicks off in South Africa, Singaporean fans are still unsure if they will even get to watch the tournament on television at all.

This comes after the stunning revelation on Tuesday by both StarHub and Singapore Telecommunications that they had submitted a joint bid for the World Cup next year, but ultimately failed to reach an agreement with the sport’s world governing body, Fifa.

It was initially thought that the two telcos had put in separate bids, such is the intensity of their rivalry in gaining a stranglehold in the local pay-TV market.

But it seems that the cost of beaming the 64 live games is proving too big a price to pay, as the joint statement said that the costs have ‘escalated substantially’, although no exact figures were disclosed.

But let’s not be quick to suggest that SingTel and StarHub are trying to make huge profits from this venture. The price offered to Fifa ‘would sacrifice all World Cup margins’ for both telcos even as they try to match Fifa’s asking price and still keep the fees affordable for consumers, the statement added.

In 2002, StarHub did not charge its existing customers to watch the matches taking place in South Korea and Japan. Four years later, for the tournament in Germany, it charged $15.75 extra for existing Sports Group subscribers, while non-sports group customers were billed $26.25.

So what’s next for the 2010 World Cup? The options are few. One obvious way forward would be for the two telcos to put in an improved joint bid that would meet Fifa’s asking price.

Doing so, however, would result in another problem: Should the telcos stick with the same subscription fees or thereabouts to keep it affordable to the masses, or absorb the higher costs and end up in the red instead of just breaking even?

At the end of the day, it all boils down to making a sound and responsible business decision. If the asking price is just too high, then perhaps it would make better sense for the telcos to hold up their hands, admit they tried their best to clinch a reasonable deal, and then just pull out of the bidding altogether.

But where does this leave viewers in this football-mad country, who are still coming to grips with the stark reality that they could be missing the World Cup telecast for the first time? Not many can stomach the fact that at least 202 other countries – including Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq – will all get to enjoy the games while they may not.

The unsuccessful joint bid also throws up another interesting question of whether such collaborations can be successful in future, be it for the World Cup or any other pay-TV event.

Is Fifa generally reluctant to accept such bids, given that they could be perceived as anti-competitive and not offer the best, or highest, price? At this stage, no one knows for sure.

As fans in Singapore await the final verdict on the World Cup bid, don’t be surprised if some are already bracing themselves to make trips across the Causeway next June to watch the games in Malaysia. The more tech-savvy could resort to live streaming on the Internet, but where’s the fun in watching England take on Brazil on a tiny computer screen?

But let’s not jump the gun. Let SingTel and StarHub go back to the negotiating table with Fifa first. For everyone else, it’s a matter of keeping their fingers – and perhaps toes – tightly crossed that there will be some good news soon.

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