Virgin Media Television has missed out on Uefa Champions League action in the bidding process for the Irish television rights to the next three seasons, amid inflation in the price.
It is understood that RTÉ has retained its rights to the pick of Tuesday night matches from the 2021-22 season onwards but that a new bidder has entered the fray, outbidding Virgin to take the majority of match packages.
Uefa, the European footballing body, is thought to still be in final negotiations with this bidder ahead of an announcement of a new Irish three-year deal.
A consortium of investors may be seeking to acquire and then sub-license the rights to broadcasters here, or a fresh challenge could be underway from Eir or Premier Sports.
The rise in price earlier furthered speculation that sports streaming service DAZN – which recently won the German rights to the Champions League – or Amazon Prime Video were pursuing rights in the Irish market, but neither is believed to be the final bidder.
The news was shared with staff at the Ballymount-based broadcaster on Monday.
"We made a competitive bid that was slightly higher than last time for the packages we wanted," said Virgin Media Television managing director Paul Farrell. He added that Virgin was "disappointed" but also "happy to walk away" rather than pay more than the rights were worth to the company.
Six Nations rights
Virgin is now expected to focus its freed-up budget and attention on renewing its rights to Six Nations rugby, which expire this year. The TV rights for the next four years will be announced either later this month or in April, with the UK outcome due ahead of the Irish one.
Virgin may also bid for certain GAA rights such as league matches or the club championships, Mr Farrell indicated, but does not intend to target the All-Ireland senior football or hurling competitions.
“The summer bit doesn’t do it for us, to be honest,” he said.
Virgin will be “a bit cleverer about the content we create” in sport and “think a bit differently”, Mr Farrell added. It recently renewed its UK horseracing rights until 2023 and will soon receive free-to-air rights to several sports including cycling and tennis through a deal with Eurosport owner Discovery.
The loss of Champions League will still be felt at Virgin, which used the matches to populate Virgin Media Sport as well as bring a big mid-week audience to its free-to-air channels. A typical match attracted more than 200,000 viewers, rising to as high as 633,000 for the 2019 final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
The broadcaster, then known as TV3, won the dominant share of rights to Champions League and Europa League matches for three years in a 2018 deal, which significantly extended its previous holdings and gave it access to more than 300 matches in a season not affected by Covid-19. The 2019-2020 season was interrupted and then curtailed as a result of the pandemic.
European football coverage from BT Sport, the UK rights holder, is also available to Irish viewers if they pay for BT Sport through Sky. Eir previously distributed BT Sport in the Republic but lost its deal to do so to Sky in 2019.
BT has already been awarded the exclusive UK rights for the next three years, up to and including the 2023-24 season, with the company paying £1.2 billion (€1.4 billion) for Champions League and Europa League rights – a little more than it did in the previous auction.