BT Sport’s venture into Europe: The Real Game-Changer

November 12, 2013 in Europe, Features by Matty Deller

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It was announced this past weekend that BT Sport will be the official British broadcast partner of both the Europa League and the Champions League from 2015 onwards, spending a staggering £897m to secure them, reportedly double what Sky and ITV bid together. This not only gives Sky it’s first dent on its previously impregnable wall that they’ve had up for almost a decade, this also means that ITV - broadcasting the competition since it’s inception in 1992 - will no longer have any rights to any live club football (for now) meaning no live club football will be on terrestrial television (even if that is a thing in this day and age) for the first time ever. Now a lot of people are bemoaning this as the end of football for the common man, the end of kids seeing their stars on TV screens and wanting to copy them. But, in 2013 - are we really saying that kids won’t have access to this all? Do me a favour. I think the real thing here is that Sky has a genuine challenge to their footballing throne in the form of BT Sport.

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Sky have been the dominant force in sports broadcasting for nearly 25 years and have seen off every single challenge that has come their way. ITV Digital? Gone. Setanta? Laters. ESPN? See ya bye. BT then rock up, a company that can challenge Sky’s heavy pockets (the almost £1bn they spent on the rights was merely half their profits from last year), and not only take some of their Premier League rights, they’ve now taken the Champions League that Sky have coveted for so long. Combine that with the fact they’ve picked up the European football rights that ESPN had (Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1) and the FA Cup coverage which they currently share with ITV, but will soon be with the BBC - they can realistically say their footballing line-up is arguably the same, if not stronger, than Sky’s. This surely must put a shiver down Murdoch and companies spine - especially when you see that Sky just has £1.3bn wiped off it’s share value after the BT Sport acquisition was announced. Ouch.

Another issue is that prickly issue of PR. Sky have not had the most squeaky clean public face for a while. The phone hacking scandal gave their head Rupert Murdoch and BskyB a black eye from which they will never recover. On the other side, BT haven’t really had much major bad PR to talk about, with the phone vote rigging scandal in 2008 the only real one that comes to mind. It’s British Telecom - that institution that stood through thick and thin across wars and scandals, it’s something that’s always been there - like tea and the BBC. One of it’s main headquarters is a London Landmark (The BT Tower) - it’s almost a national treasure. Sky has this evil corporate feel to it, cold and uncaring - and if the happy, smiley face of sports media starts getting more of what the people want, the tide will start to turn. Finally, bottom line - BT Sport is straight up cheaper than Sky, charging only £25 a month for BT Sport compared to over £30 for Sky. It’s also free on Virgin Media and free if you have BT Broadband. Game, set and match to Team Telephone then.

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A key blow that BT Sport have also struck is that they have announced that they will be broadcasting free-to-view games, including both finals once they have secured the rights in two years time. A lot of people have been bemoaning the loss of ITV’s coverage of the Champions League - but whilst all of them might not be free, there will still be some, and most have the opportunity to get BT Sport if they want to. I do not buy that ‘not everyone can afford it’. It’s 2013 - digital TV and broadband are a basic way of living (as ridiculous as that is) so I do not believe many people will go without.

The factor that is a toss-up is presentation of the product. Sky have successfully glossed over the Keys and Grey era by rolling out a lot of quality anchoring talent across their football broadcasting (Jeff Stelling, Ben Shepard, David Jones) and nabbing possibly the two most unlikely amazing pundits in recent times in the form of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. BT Sport have a mixture of decent and diabolical in their infancy. Jake Humphrey is a good anchor for football broadcasting, Darren Fletcher has made a successful jump from radio commentary to television commentary and they have a lot of good pundits (when they’re not doing the wanker symbol on live TV). But then they hired Michael Owen, possibly the most boring man on the planet. Good god, he is not made for television. They do however have a sublime line-up on their Sunday Night Football line-up, a group of great footballing journalists headed by James Richardson. We can only dream that Jimbo would head their European football, but it’ll probably be Jake, Steve McManaman, David James and company. Which is fine. Either way - we soon will never have our televisions darkened by Adrian Chiles or Clive Tyldesley again. Joy of joys.

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This is a huge power shift in the world of sports broadcasting, BT have deep pockets to compete with Sky - they have the best broadband according to recent surveys, they now seemingly have the best sports roster that could only get better, how will Sky react? Will they shift focus to the Football League and the Premier League? Will they battle back to get more Premier League rights? Could they crumble? For the first time, the last one is an actual possibility.  I’ll leave the final word to BBC Business Editor, Robert Peston:

“BT is number one in broadband; BSkyB wants to be number one and just got kicked in its most sensitive organ.

The history of BSkyB says it will not writhe around on the park in agony, and will take little time trying to find an effective way to retaliate.

The battle between BT and BSkyB just became very interesting.”

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