Thoughts on broadcasting rights
"Agon wants people to pay for chess moves. Why aren’t the players uniting," asks some of the top chess twitter personalities. I think the simple reason is that many top players agree; that to commercialize chess, organizers need to create more avenues for income. I certainly think so.
My question remains: When will ALL the top players unite and stand up for the rights of all players/fans? I have yet to see that done.— Susan Polgar ( @SusanPolgar) November 14, 2017
We may not always agree with the methods used – but in this debate, there’s a lot of talk about the lawsuits, suggested punishments, and such, and not so much talk about the current reality and why it’s a problem. Too often, chess tournaments are funded by a single person or entity. Whether it be Sinquefield in St. Louis, Blitz Championship in Saudi-Arabia or World Championship matches in Chennai and Sochi – what they all have in common is that one very powerful person says, “We’re going to make this happen.” Chess is far too dependent on these rich uncles, and consequently, Khanty-Mansiysk in Siberia is massively overrepresented when it comes to big chess events.
Chess has an inherent problem. While the prices of soccer rights are soaring, thanks to people wanting to see the game and goals in real time (rather than just the score), chess rights don’t have the same appeal. By equating moves in chess with scorelines in other sports, we’re essentially giving up. Since the piece placement is always set, giving up moves allows for a perfect reconstruction of events. All the action is revealed instantly. To me, a better comparison is computer evaluation and scoreline. They both give you information about who has the advantage, without revealing the play of how it happened. You keep yourself updated, but a big fan will want to see Messi’s dribbles and Carlsen’s maneuvering.
Many will say Agon are trying to copyright new novelties in the Sicilian. That’s just plain wrong. They are interested in protecting rights during the broadcast. For some time, they insisted that they had rights even an hour after a game was finished. That was overreaching – and I said as much. In the draft published yesterday, they too have moved away from it.
In fact, other than the punishments they want to enforce, I think the policy described is sensible – including how it accounts for people sharing snippets on social media. The problem is that the policy (covered over one paragraph), drowns in the four paragraphs on how to punish violators.
Many have argued that organizers should have their own broadcasts, as the right to video is clearly one organizers have. But there are a couple of problems: One, it’s extremely expensive. Two, if a chess website such as chess24 has a competing broadcast, how can the organizer justify spending tons of money on broadcasts, when chess24 has some competitive advantages? Chess24 has been excellent in creating commentating profiles among their guys. If people would rather listen to Jan than the official site, the organizer’s big investment of funding both tournament and commentary won’t pay off at all.
It’s important to understand that sites such as Chess24 and Chessbomb aren’t necessarily neutral observers. They have a commercial interest in chess moves being free to broadcast. Their sites have advertising and paying members. Of course they want to keep broadcasting tournaments for free, without any of their revenue landing in the tournament organizer’s hands. That’s not to say that your membership doesn’t support chess. It does. It supports commentators and video authors, but not the tournaments themselves. I’m scared that one day there’s no more rich uncles supporting chess, and we’re left without economically self-supporting tournaments.
I’m no lawyer, so I don’t understand too much about the court cases Agon have filed and lost. While I think it would be fair for an organizer to have broadcasting rights, there’s a good case for saying it’s currently legal to broadcast moves. Because of that, I think tournaments in the next couple of years will see a shift to rapid and blitz. In a time scramble, video will be absolutely crucial to provide a good and entertaining show. And having the video rights, the organizer’s broadcast will outcompete any other streams. If that happens, and the organizers start charging pay-per-view, I hope you’ll support top level chess by watching.
I’ll be playing in the Palma Fide Grand Prix, organized by Agon, starting tomorrow. The tournament could become one of the most exciting ones of 2017, as Vachier-Lagrave and Radjabov fight for a spot in the Candidates.