BT Sport warms up for debut Premier League season

Telecoms company will be keen to make a return on its £1bn rights splurge

When BT Sport hits screens today, what will it be like? We know it will feature the talents of Craig Doyle (yes, that Craig Doyle – Pat Kenny isn't the only person to cut his ties with RTÉ this summer), who will present its rugby coverage.

We also know that freelance-du-jour Clare Balding will host a weekly magazine show and former BBC Formula One presenter Jake Humphrey will anchor the Premier League jewel in the crown – the 38 matches a season on which BT splashed £738 million in a three-year deal.

Can BT’s broadcasting skills make the grade as far as viewers are concerned? Can the former British telecoms monopoly collect on the total of £1 billion it has spent on sports rights to date?

These are questions that are dwarfed by the implications that the Premier League football rights auction has for the wider media market.


The company's back-of-the-net strike against the dominance of Sky for sports rights has upped the ante for everyone. It was an incisive attack from the wing that took the Sky defence by surprise, made it impossible for cash-strapped RTÉ to pay even for highlights packages, and now has BT's telco competitors wondering if they have been playing the wrong game on the wrong pitch.

In 2009, EU broadcasters spent €5.8 billion on sports rights, according to European Commission figures. Since then, it is fair to say there has been some inflation in the field. BT's bids pushed the three-season Premier League auction that begins this month to a record £3 billion – a whopping 71 per cent increase over the size of the previous three-year deal.

Every now and again, executives of companies, ranging from faded search engine corporations to minor satellite channels, hail the importance of content to their business strategy.

What those executives are really hankering after is a share of the “premium content” spoils. They want rights to a critical mass of must-see programming. In the case of BT and the Premier League, that didn’t just mean Sky’s leftovers. Sky still has 116 matches, but BT wanted some of the cream too.

“This season Sky Sports no longer have all the best games,” reads the UK advertisement for BT Sport, which goes on to stress how its rights include “18 Top Picks that are no longer available on Sky Sports”.

More than 500,000 subscribers have already signed up to BT Sport in the UK, although most of these were existing BT broadband customers who can access BT Sport for free.

In Ireland, the addition of the three BT channels to the Setanta Ireland offer has seen that company pick up subscriptions “over the norm” for this time of year, with “unprecedented volumes” of customers expected to be added on match days.

Setanta's marketing director Brian Quinn describes its agreement with BT as "a real game-changer" for the company, which knows all about being on the losing side of sports rights auctions.

The world of premium content rights has proven to be far from secure over the years. A European Commission green paper on Connected TV, its phrase for the broadcasting-meets-internet age, drily concludes that success for recent rights buyers “may depend on the ability to consistently offer such content to viewers”.

This time around, BT hasn’t just bet the farm, it has bet the whole stadium, investing large annual sums to run BT Sport 1, BT Sport 2 and ESPN, in the hope that a return will eventually come in the form of a boost in broadband subscriber numbers.

Its audacious entry into the world of content is just the largest-font writing on the wall for the media sector that tells them that in today’s market, any company with sufficient cash can come along and snatch a piece of the action – it doesn’t need to have a broadcasting heritage.

There is little to stop Eircom, which plans to launch subscription television services later this year, from snapping up rights to proven properties, offering them free to subscribers and using the exclusive content to draw in customers from rivals.

As for what fans can expect from BT Sport on the screen, it has been busy lobbying to be allowed to place cameras in the players' dressing rooms. Sadly, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has declared this an unlikely prospect, describing it as a "slightly gimmicky idea".

Ah, but who can blame BT for trying. Many a successful broadcaster has thrived on the successful exploitation of “slightly gimmicky ideas”, and when you’re spending 10-digit sums, every gimmick helps.