Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

BT vs Sky: A fight not to be missed

A heavyweight bout featuring David James and the BT challengers against Gary Neville and the holders Sky. Robin Scott-Elliot says: let's get ready to rumble...

'We are where Sky were 20 years ago,' said Jake Humphrey, who will front BT's coverage
'We are where Sky were 20 years ago,' said Jake Humphrey, who will front BT's coverage

Secrets do not often remain so in football – witness the last few days – but until Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, opened the sealed bids aimed at securing rights to sport's most expensive entity nobody, not even Scudamore himself, had an inkling of the arrival of a new player.

BT's interest in the Premier League came out of left field but its successful bid, all £738m of it, for 38 matches introduced the biggest threat to Sky's two decades of dominance. Both sides deny it, but this is a broadcasting war and at its heart is a battle of the bands.

The business of selling broadband provides the bottom line for BT and sporting inducement has become a key part in that. Sky, stressing its long-term commitment across sports, responded to BT's launch with a pointed statement: "For us, sport isn't a marketing gimmick to promote another product."

But at Sky's west London base it is squeaky-bottom time, as someone once said, about what is developing at BT's new studios in the capital's east. BT, with its deep pockets, will last longer than Setanta and ESPN, both seen off with a degree of comfort. This is, as one industry source put it, a "game changer".

Who has got what

"We are where Sky were 20 years ago," said Jake Humphrey, who will front BT's coverage. "They began with 40 games."

It is a somewhat disingenuous stance. Yes, Sky remain in pole position with the Premier League, having paid £2.28bn for the privilege. They have 116 games and more first picks – BT have 18, Sky 20.

But in the past Sky have had all first picks; it means a significant number of the season's pivotal games will be live on BT.

BT paid £152m to secure Premiership rugby from next season. It will also show domestic football from Italy, Germany, Brazil, France and the United States, as well as the Scottish Premier League and the Europa League, and it has taken on ESPN's final year of the FA Cup. Sky counters with the Football League, Spanish football and the heavyweight of the Champions League.

BT, with two sports channels to fill, announced the rights to MotoGP to go alongside those of the women's tennis tour. BT will also show Women's Super League games live. Across all sport, Sky still has a strong portfolio, particularly in cricket, tennis and golf, although it stands to lose the Heineken Cup.

Who they have got

Sky's latest recruit, Jamie Carragher, adds to an already impressive stable. The line-up BT revealed of Steve McManaman, Owen Hargreaves, David James and Michael Owen does not stand comparison to Carragher, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness. James is the most interesting, a thoughtful and potentially spiky presence – he criticised Neville's dual role as a TV pundit and an England coach, describing it as a "conflict of interest".

Head-to-head

The promises in the Olympic Park, where BT will be based, were of "changing the face of sports broadcasting". Which makes it difficult to see where Tim Lovejoy presenting a Saturday morning show fits in.

BT's match presentation will be different. A studio audience will be involved, as will a section of a pitch for pundits to demonstrate their analysis. It is an innovative and interesting move, one that James is particularly keen on. BT's other strength is Humphrey himself, an adept and easy-mannered broadcaster (ditto Clare Balding, who will present a chat show).

In contrast, Sky will maintain its policy of not having a particular frontman – arguing that it's the pundits who are key.

What they want

On Tuesday the FA put the rights for England home friendlies and the FA Cup out to tender. That is a target for BT – one ITV and the BBC will fight for. BT has already shown it is prepared to spend and will continue to do so come the next Premier League contract, which will be bid for in 2015.

The aim then will be for more games and BT will pay for them. Sky will fight tooth and nail to hold what it has.

What they cost

Nothing was BT's headline announcement. That's a nothing provided you are one of the provider's five million broadband customers. BT broadband costs around £15 a month. Those who already have Sky will be able to get BT's channels through their Sky boxes at a cost of £12 to £15 a month, as well as an initial £15 fee.

After Sky has been forced to spend so much on Premier League rights, there has been speculation that the broadcaster may have to raise prices – the sports package costs around £21 a month – although that is unlikely for the time being, given BT's initial pricing, notably its claim to offer packages to pubs that are 80 per cent cheaper than Sky's.

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