Statement by Ilya Merenzon, Chief Executive of World Chess by Agon Limited
Later today, the Cassation Court in Moscow will rule on whether we, as the commercial rights holder to the World Chess Championship cycle of events, have a legal right to prevent the live broadcast of games by rival media companies. It is one of four cases we have pending.
Regardless of today’s decision, it will serve to bring attention to commercial viability of chess, an important issue that came up since I took the decision last year to take legal steps to enforce exclusivity over the live transmission of the moves of major chess tournaments and prevent competing websites from showing the live games in events in which we (and other organizers) have invested millions of dollars to stage.
If this was football, then we wouldn’t be in this fractious situation. BBC wouldn’t dream of showing the live broadcasts of Premier League games because the commercial rights are held by BT Sport and Sky.
But chess isn’t like other sports, because showing the graphical representation of the moves is essentially the same as showing the actual game board.
Our opponents, such as the Chess24 website, claim we can’t stop them showing the live moves. They and a few other websites make a great deal of money from showing those games. Essentially, they are profiteering from our investment.
Before Agon came along, any website could show the live games. It was a free-for-all and a huge obstacle to selling chess as a sport to commercial partners. However, chess was not a commercial sport at that time, with major events mostly paid for not by sponsors, but by wealthy donors and countries.
So it was not surprising that websites that build their business model on free and unlimited content objected so strongly to our determination to uphold our position as commercial rights holders to the World Championship cycle.
But let me be crystal clear — we are not out to hurt these businesses. In fact we have gone out of our way to work with chess websites for the benefit of those organizations and the countless millions of chess fans around the world:
- We have made a broadcast widget available for free so that any chess website can show the live moves of all the games
- We have created an affiliate partner programme so that any website can financially benefit when one of their subscribers pays to watch our premium video broadcast of events
- We have invested heavily in marketing chess to bring new fans to the sport for the benefit of everyone in the chess business
So chess fans can follow every game of every World Chess Championship event on whichever website they wish. And it’s free. We have not restricted access to the games for chess fans and we have not asked anyone to pay to watch games if they do not wish to buy premium content which includes professionally produced video and commentary.
During the World Championship Match in New York our strategy of providing a free widget with a representation of the live moves saw chess featured on major international media websites across the world including New York Magazine and the Guardian where games were on the homepage! In total, 10 million chess fans followed the Championship Match online. That is a record for any chess match.
The only issue we have ever had has been with freeloading websites that deliberately set out to unjustly profit from our investment in chess. They are not doing it out of an altruistic desire to bring chess to the masses; they are doing it to make money.
We are looking forward to the today’s court decision in one of our four cases. It may or not go in Agon’s favour, but we are building the commercial appeal for the sport globally and believe that all organizers, and federations and chess players, as well as the fans will ultimately benefit from giving the organizers a fair chance to monetize on their investment while providing the audience with a superior product.
Our model involves providing all fans with live official moves, basic analysis, amazing photo essays and other assets for free and offering top level video production and commentary as a premium service for $25 a year (chess24.com’s annual subscription costs over $100 per year).
We are working with the US lawmakers to make the ‘Hot News Doctrine’, a legal framework that preserves the rights of events organizers, a law in the New York State so that chess and other sports organizers are able to use this fair competition law as protection of their commercial rights. We are also working with FIDE to develop a fair broadcasting policy which will provide clarity and fair protection of broadcasting rights to all organizers.
We are committed to working with every responsible chess media website for the benefit of everyone, including fans, who care passionately about the future of our sport.