On Saturday, BT announced that they’d successfully bid for exclusive rights to show the UEFA Champions League and Europa League between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons. It may have cost them £897 million, double the total cost of the previous European deal in place between ITV and Sky, but it forms another coup for BT in their bid to end Sky’s dominance of football coverage in this country. It’s a huge development, and another step towards a revolution in how football is broadcast in the UK.
The significance of the deal can’t be understated. Sky have been overbearing in their dominance of football in the UK up until this season, when BT Sport have emerged to take slightly more of the pie than their predecessors Setanta and ESPN did. Now they are to be left without the world’s premier club competition. They have claimed that the Premier League is a bigger draw; accounting for 18% of their viewers as opposed to just 3% for the Champions League. Considering the number of games of interest broadcast in the Champions League though, it is still like the loss of a jewel in the Sky’s crown.
For the first time ever, one broadcaster has exclusive rights to screen European football, and it continues the somewhat worrying trend of ‘terrestrial’ channels losing out on football. The cost for fans to watch games has gone up from the cost of a TV license to at least the same with an added cost of a Freeview box and a BT Sport subscription (on its’ own or with broadband). Unlike international tournaments, Champions League games are not required by law to be shown on free-to-air TV, meaning that people could be forced to pay to watch top tier football. BT have said that they will make the tournaments’ finals free-to-air when they cover the Champions League and Europa League; as well as a “selection” of top matches earlier in the tournament, including at least one match from each British team involved. It’s a good gesture by BT, but whether it amounts to a similar level to ITV’s coverage remains to be seen. It’s a blow for those without the finances to pay for BT or Sky subscriptions, and leaves only Sportscene, some Scottish Cup and League Cup games, Match of the Day and the FA Cup Final in the way of publically available club football. The tide may begin to turn next season, as the BBC start a four-season agreement with BT Sport to share FA Cup coverage throughout the season. I’d like to see more football available to the masses, as it encourages and inspires youngsters to play the game and get involved in exercise – which is to the benefit of our country’s football development and overall health.
BT are certainly taking football broadcasting in the UK by storm. They have spent vast sums of money to secure these UEFA competition rights, as well as the rights to 38 Barclays Premier League games a year, SPFL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Le Championnat and FA Cup coverage. This is largely in an attempt to increase revenue, and to promote their broadband service by offering the channels for free to those customers. It seems to be working, with over two million subscribers already, but whether it provides the returns to justify such an outlay is unsure. BT announced six-month profits lower than the same period in the year before in August, but attributed it to the start-up costs of the new channels.
Reaction to BT Sport coverage has been mixed so far. They have tried to do something new, which they are to be commended for, with some of their presentation decisions, but it isn’t generally as slick and professional as Sky’s offerings. Including ex-referee Mike Halsey in the commentary team for Premier League games is definitely a good feature, providing an insight into flashpoints in the game and how referees are reaching their decisions. Another little improvement is showing any red cards above the score graphic (which is placed in the bottom left corner rather than the top left), which is useful if you join a game late and are wondering why a team is playing in the way they are. On the other hand, pundits such as Jake Humphries, poached from the BBC’s Formula 1 coverage, and Michael Owen have drawn criticism from some quarters – and many still regard Sky’s match broadcasting, including camera angles, replays and the like, far superior.
BT are certainly taking the initiative in the fight to be the UK’s top football broadcaster, being the first real challenger to Sky since the advent of the Premier League in England. It will be interesting to see now how Sky respond to this shot across the bow. Possibly lowering prices or bringing new innovations to the way we watch football, building upon recent developments like 3D. By the time the Champions League rights are up for auction again, we’ll know whether the revolution has been successful.