Even though Global Cycling Network’s parent company, Play Sports Group, was known to be for sale, the announcement Wednesday that its GCN+ streaming service will shut down December 19 caught many bike racing fans by surprise. Our best guess at the time the sale news emerged was that Play Sports’ original content division, mostly comprised of its just-launched GCN web site and native video offerings, would be split off and sold, while the live broadcast coverage rights at the heart of the GCN+ streaming service would be retained by Play Sport’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. That’s exactly what appears to be happening, but specifics – in particular about what happens next – are sparse at this time.
What GCN+ brought and why its closure matters
Against the rumored 100+ job losses, the question of where bike racing fans will find coverage of the sport is, admittedly, a smaller concern. But it is still a concern. Depending on which part of the world you’re in, GCN+ has for several years been your home for coverage of all or a substantial amount of live racing coverage, including the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and major classics. In 2023 that expanded to include the mountain bike World Cup, which had previously been available for free on Red Bull TV.
Warner Bros. Discovery first bought into GCN+ in 2017 and became majority shareholder in 2019. In 2021, WBD bought the remaining 29.3% of the company it didn’t already own in a deal that valued the company at £79.8 million (PDF), according to the public accounts of the holding company, DNI Europe Holdings, that controls Play Sports Group. But then in 2022, according to the same annual filing, DNI Europe listed an impairment charge (PDF) of £66.5 million, effectively lopping off 80% of Play Sports’ valuation just a year after WBD completed its acquisition.
Whatever the wild financial gyrations of its owners, GCN+ helped settle what had been a chaotic and unstable ecosystem of live streaming coverage. Prior to its 2020 launch, racing fans in many markets, particularly outside of Europe, used a variety of strategies and streams to watch, ranging from VPNs to watch major broadcast networks by appearing to be geolocated in their home market to illegal “pirate” re-broadcasts that were marked by buggy interfaces and the risk of malware. The entry of GCN+ consolidated coverage in one, affordable package that was accessible worldwide, although some regions, like the US, had split rights depending on the event.
GCN+’s abrupt departure throws all that back into question, and soon. The shutdown will happen right at the start of “Kerstperiode,” the traditional bloc of holiday cyclocross racing that includes big events like the Heusden-Zolder World Cup and the nighttime race at Diegem. It also comes just three weeks before the start of the 2024 WorldTour season at the Tour Down Under.
What happens now?
With just over a month to go before the live coverage and app go dark, there are precious few details yet about what will replace it. Here’s what we know, both from the public communications and a brief response to Escape Collective‘s request for comment from a Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson:
- GCN+ subscribers will get refunds for any unused portion of their membership.
- “All live cycling that is currently available on GCN+ can be watched on Discovery+ in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ireland,” said the spokesperson, largely in line with public-facing communications. “In all other countries in Europe, the Eurosport app provides live streaming of all cycling content currently on GCN+.”
- Outside of Europe, things get much murkier. Eurosport says only that Warner Bros. Discovery is “working with local partners to ensure cycling fans can continue to access live race coverage.” Both the Eurosport FAQ and the WBD spokesperson said only that subscribers and viewers “will be kept fully informed about future availability of the live content” currently on GCN+.
Here’s a curious hitch: Warner Bros. Discovery is an American company and, yes, Discovery+ is available in the US (and Canada). But there are differences by market. Discovery tailors content in the platform to your geographic location, meaning the US lineup on Discovery+ will look different to a subscriber in the UK, and live sports aren’t a part of the current Discovery+ lineup in the US. We should also note that in 2019, Warner Bros. Discovery led a US$50 million funding round in Flo Sports, the parent of Flo Bikes, which has US rights to a number of races. But that doesn’t mean US streaming coverage will automatically shift to Flo.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s move to shutter GCN+ is very similar to what NBC Sports did last year in closing its NBC Sports Gold app and moving all live sports coverage to its Peacock platform. From a business perspective, it likely makes sense to bundle sports into one omnibus-style streaming service with its other content, and in both Warner and NBC’s case, those services offer a much wider array of channels and content than live sports. The question is how the messy territorial aspect will play out, with different rights in different markets.
In the short term, our advice is to plan for chaos, and for subscribers outside of the Eurosport market, expect at least a temporary return to the bad old days of using a VPN to hot-desk your IP address to a country where you can find a stream. NBC offered months of advance notice of the NBC Sports Gold shutdown, so unless WBD has been hard at work on a shift that it’s just not quite ready to announce, it’s unknown whether they’ll have more than a patchwork solution for coverage outside of Europe ready by the December 19 shutdown date for GCN+.
Hopefully, Warner Bros. Discovery will offer more concrete information soon about long-term plans, and those will likely look much more similar to what NBC did in the US with its cycling coverage. Where that analogy falls down is that, for sports, Peacock owns only US rights in most cases, where Discovery/Eurosport/GCN+ is much more sprawling, and so it’s hard to know what those specifics look like in a given media market. We’ll continue to follow up as we get more information, and expect our annual “How to watch pro cycling” guide to appear in January 2024, maybe this time with some additional info on using a VPN.
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