Football

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

Virgin Media and the Premier League

The Win

Judging from recent interviews across the media, Virgin Media CEO Tom Mockridge is out and about shouting loudly about his company’s complaint about how the Premier League sells its UK TV rights. His complaint is broadly that the league only sells 168 of the 360 fixtures each season, artificially limiting supply to keep prices high.

The media fusillade includes pieces in The Guardian, the FT, the Telegraph and the BBC. He also popped up on Radio 4’s Media Show.

But this isn’t new news. The complaint was actually made to Ofcom last year ahead of the most recent Premier League rights auction. Furthermore, Virgin Media asked Ofcom to suspend that UK TV rights sale ahead of making a decision on this investigation – something Mockridge sidestepped a little during the Media Show interview. Ofcom refused that, and the auction went ahead with the new rights deal running for the 2016/17 – 2018/19 seasons.

The Premier League currently packages up fixtures into seven packages valued differently depending on a variety of measures including which “pick” of the weekend’s fixture that package entitles the broadcaster to. There are lots of rules about ensuring that every team gets a minimum TV exposure, when games can be scheduled (particularly with teams involved in Thursday night Europa league footabll), and when is optimal for TV viewing figures.

What that means is that not all seven packages are equal. In the most recent rights rounds for the period starting next season, Sky retained its 4pm Sunday slot and got back Saturday 12:45pm package from BT. These get most of the best fixtures – along with the Sunday 2pm slot which Sky also owns. BT will be taking over the 5:30pm Saturday slot.

But let’s look at some of the arguments Mockridge makes as part of his case.

What about his argument over how rights are sold in domestic leagues elsewhere in comparison to the Premier League?

Well he’s right to say that most games in US leagues like the NFL, MLB and NBA are televised, but it’s a complicated web of sales there, combining national network TV, local TV and digital offerings.

The biggest sport in the US in terms of television money is the NFL, and it’s notable that NFL games avoid Friday nights (High school football – “Friday Night Lights”) and Saturdays (College football – itself a big TV money spinner). So games are mostly played on Sundays, with a Monday night game and more recently some Thursday night games. That’s effectively the NFL’s way of having the equivalent of having a 3pm-5pm “blackout” as we have in the UK when there is no live domestic football.

Few would argue that it’s sensible offering televised Premier League football during that window unless you want to destroy the fabric of the game down through the Football League, SPL and beyond.

Mockridge’s solution seems to be one of two things: the Premier League offers more money to the lower leagues to offset this, and to use regional blackouts as used in the US.

In the first case, I’m not sure that holds up. Mockridge is asking for something that by his reckoning will keep inflationary rights in check – in other words limiting what the Premier League can make. That would mean that the league would surely be less inclined to deliver revenues to lower league divisions?

As for regional blackouts? Well that’s complicated, and Mockridge is missing one massive difference.

The US model works something like this in the case of the NFL: home markets are broadly defined as a 75 mile radius around the team’s ground. The idea is that if a game is not sold out 72 hours in advance, the game cannot air locally. This is to encourage fans to attend live games rather than simply stay at home. Plus full grounds look and sound better on television. In reality the rules are bit more complex. But key is the fact that the FCC has recently lifted its rules on blackouts, and this season NFL teams have lifted the rules too.

Different sports have different blackout rules, but it’s really unclear to me how they’d work in the UK.

Mockridge talks in interviews about blocking out a Manchester United games to Manchester viewers and Arsenal games to London viewers if they’re played at 3pm. And it’s true, technology could allow this.

But that’s completely missing the point of US-style blackouts.

The NFL blackout rules were put in place to ensure full stadia for NFL teams, not to support a wider American football eco-system. As I’ve said, the NFL does that by not clashing with high school and college games.

In the UK, there’s no need to prevent Manchester viewers from seeing Manchester United play on TV because they, like most Premier League teams, sell out pretty much all their home games. Across the Premier League this season, grounds have been 96% full on average thus far.

We’re talking about people staying at home to watch any Premier League games rather than going out to watch Macclesfield, Brentford or indeed any teams outside the Premier League.

Blacking out United’s games in Manchester would still leave another four or so live games for Manchester fans to choose from at 3pm on Saturday. Lower division gates would suffer as fans stayed at home and watched another fixture.

Other sports leagues around the world think only of their own leagues. We actually have an ecosystem that considers the full league structure. There’s no relegation or promotion in the NFL/NBA/MLB – so the leagues don’t especially care beyond college sport.

Then there is Mockridge’s underlying thesis that offering every game would somehow curtail inflationary rights revenues. I’m just not sure that’s the case. The reason we have the inflation we do at the moment is because in the UK there are two major players in BT and Sky who have both seen sport as a core part of their offering. In fact, while broadcasters have seen massive inflation overall in rights, they’ve not actually needed to increase their subscriptions to that degree. Sky has increased its prices a little, but not remotely close to the 70% Mockridge talks about. Sky says it’ll find the savings it needs elsewhere. BT bought a lower priced package this time round, and is better able to swallow the price increase without introducing price increases (That’s not to say it won’t of course).

In the end bidders can only pay what they think the market will bear. In the same way that Virgin Media sets the price of its broadband for customers based on what they believe consumers are willing to pay for high-speed internet access. That price Virgin Media charges is based on lots of things including what it costs to provide the service, but also what others in the market are charging.

Furthermore, just because there are more games on offer, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that the value of each game would go down. It’d all depend on how the Premier League retailed those games. A third bidder might enter the market – Virgin Media for example. Additional bidders boost prices.

I can’t see the Premier League choosing to do anything other than offer games in packages as they do now. Currently every game outside the 3pm slot is part of a package.

In radio, there are two packages that include the 3pm slot – Five Live has one and Absolute Radio the other. Since the number of games played on Saturdays at 3pm is quite variable, and all the “top” games have already been shifted out of that slot, then I can only really see Premier League offering a complete package of those remaining fixtures. But that would probably just bring extra revenue for those games into play as either Sky or BT bid for those games as a red-button offering.

While that might mean the average price per game overall falls a little, the actual total rights payments handed over would increase. And an overall increase surely means more total cost to customers?

Virgin Media’s complaint seems to be specifically about “collective” selling. It’s unclear to me whether whether they expect every fixture to be sold independently – perhaps auctioned on a fixture by fixture basis. I’m not sure that doing that would be any more helpful to fans. You’d never know what channel was showing what game. Broadcasters are bound to stick with offering monthly subscription rather than offer fixtures pay-per-view model (Sky previously tried this you will recall).

So were more than two groups to bid, consumers wanting full access would have to pay more than ever.

And the last thing the Premier League should follow would be a Spanish model where the big sides – notably Real Madrid and Barcelona – generate the vast majority of television revenues leaving a league that is heavily weighted towards those two clubs. A per-game model would vastly favour big clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Well maybe not Chelsea 🙂

Finally the claim by Mockridge that additional money generated by changing the rights sale process would deliver might be returned to fans in the form of cheaper tickets seems laughable. Much as I’d love to see increased TV revenues meaning cheaper tickets, that simply doesn’t happen now, and it wouldn’t happen under a new model. Instead, the vast majority of those revenues go straight into players’ pockets via increased salary demands.

You can’t have it both ways. If the Premier League offers more games live, then either the overall revenues increase or decrease. If they increase, then fans, overall, pay more. If they decrease, then that would seem like a massive market intervention, the likes of which has not been made anywhere else in the world. And inevitably those revenues would benefit the bigger clubs much more.

In the end, it is surely for the Premier League to determine its own best model. They’ve had their hand forced to ensure that there are at least two bidders. But as it happens, the model they have currently actually seems to work really well for them, and they’re second only to the NFL overall TV rights revenues. With trickle-down money going beyond the Premier League, that must be positive for the game in general.

If rights get too expensive, then subscribers will stop paying.

It’ll be interesting to see Ofcom’s conclusions to this complaint, but I’d be flabbergasted if Ofcom did anything aside from throw it out.

The Champions’ League – Part One

On Tuesday we will hear what BT has in store for its coverage of the Champions’ League and Europa League. It outbid Sky and ITV to win exclusive rights for the next three seasons.

The expectation is that they’ll announce Gary Lineker as co-presenting with Jake Humphries over Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with a £5 per month price-point for the package.

What that means for fans (and sponsors) is that there’ll be relatively little free European football on-air. At the time the bid was won, BT said that at least one fixture involving each British club in the competition will be available free-to-air on a specially set-up Freeview channel – BT Sport Showcase. This will include the final.

But whether they’ll offer the attractive games viewers want to see seems less clear. Man Utd v Zenit St Petersburg isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, but would fulfill BT’s promise.

In the meantime Sky Sports has posted a blog that seems to say something along the lines of “We might have lost the Champions’ League, but nobody’s watching it any more and they only care about the Premier League, so we don’t really care.” Sour grapes anyone? The Guardian has more coverage here.

Is there too much Champions’ League football? Probably.

Are audiences down? Well the numbers say so.

Is this because English clubs haven’t done so well in the last couple of years? Er, I would think so.

Sky Sport’s audience at the weekend for the final might have been lower this year than last year, but it’s not clear to me that’s anything more than to do with the clubs competing. Personally I want to see Messi and co. I’m not convinced that Saturday night is the right time for the final, and wonder whether returning to Wednesday nights would see a stronger overall audience.

But I do think that UEFA is going to be the loser by selling exclusively to BT. Remember the OnDigital years? ITV had the Champions’ League exclusively then, and it wasn’t enough to save the platform. So yes, people do care more about the Premier League than the Champions’ League.

The football watching audience is divided into the following segments:

a. Free-to-air only. Match of the Day; England internationals on ITV; World Cups; Euros.

b. BT subscribers. Take BT Sport because they already have BT Broadband, so why wouldn’t they?

c. Sky Sports subscribers. Like the substantial Premier League offering.

d. Sky Sports + BT Sports. Pay for Sky Sports first of all, and then either get BT Sports free because of their broadband package, or pay because of the additional games it offers (other sports like rugby come into play here).

(e. BT Sports subscriber. Pay for BT Sport but aren’t BT Broadband subscribers. Probably only rugby or Moto GP fans, and not really football fans.)

We now need a couple of new segments:

f. Sky Sports + BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Football die hards paying some more money for a complete football offering. This is probably the key constituent for the success of BT Sports Europe.

g. BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Can anyone who doesn’t otherwise pay for football be persuaded to fork out £5 (or whatever) a month? This will be a small segment.

However the Champions’ League is vital for the top flight Premier League clubs. That’s why the big “four” are always fighting to be in it. Indeed, if they’re not then they’re not going to be able to attract the right players. Top players want to play in the Champions’ League.

It’ll be interesting to see how BT pitch their offering. They need to have the satellite capacity for Sky and Virgin subscribers to be able to watch as they can do now with BT Sports. And they need to persuade a lot of people to part with actual money to watch it.

I know that for me, this means my sports TV costs are going up. Sky has already announced price increases (the massive bids they made to retain Premier League rights ensured this), and now I’m facing £5 or more a month if I want to watch Arsenal in Europe (I do).

And then there’s the question of a monthly subscription fee when matches aren’t evenly spread out across the year. For example in the 2014/15 season, there was a single match in June – the final. July and August saw qualifiers – of interest to fans of the 4th place Premier League club, but few others. The group stage kicked off in September but rounds of the competition are not evenly distributed. There are no games at all in January. So how will subscribers deal with that? Do we all cancel mid-December and re-subscribe in mid-February? The Europa league has more games, and slightly more rounds to add into this mix.

In the meantime, we can look forward to a Media Guardian article this time next year explaining to us that the cumulative audience for the Champions’ League Final has fallen by x% (where x is a big number).

But let’s see what BT says tomorrow.

[Update: Here’s my follow-up piece.]

Qatar 2022: Winners and Losers

I’m just trying to see who the winners and losers of Qatar 2022 will be following FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup in November and December rather than the traditional summer slot:

WinnersLosers
Qatar: They're desperate to hold any sport they can, and they're willing to throw as much money as possible to get those sports. Next up - seriously - The Olympics.Immigrant workers: Bonded slavery and/or death.
Sepp Blatter: The fool in charge of FIFA thinks playing football in a desert is a great idea.Fans: While I'm sure local Qataris will be very welcoming, the severe laws will almost certainly mean a diminished number of fans actually wanting to travel. If Bangladesh or Nepal make it through, then expect loads of fans!
Air conditioning companies: We sure are going to need a lot of them.European Football: You know, the people who provide 75% of the players at the World Cup. The leagues will have to accommodate the World Cup somehow, and that probably means starting pretty soon after the 2021/22 season has finished and ending well into the summer of 2023. The other option is to play through as everyone does for the African Cup of Nations. But how would that go down with a Man City, Chelsea or Arsenal, packed with internationals?
Sponsors: I just can't see audiences engaging, and that's bad for sponsors. Matches played in half empty stadiums don't look good either.
Cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Tennis, Basketball, NFL. Sports don't exist in isolation. Audiences can only watch one thing at a time. Many sports rely on windows of opportunity. So that means competition from domestic football in the summer, and the World Cup in the winter.
Broadcasters: While we all enjoy the fun of trying to work out whether ITV or BBC is showing a particular Quater Final, it's less of a problem in the summer. Broadcasters don't have big expensive drama series or reality shows culminating in series finales in the summer. But these are critical shows in the winter. Especially for...
Commercial Broadcasters: The World Cup and European Football Championships are very important for a broadcaster like ITV. Traditionally summer is a poor advertising time. So getting a massive boost from beer brands and the like every couple of years is an important part of earnings. And it doesn't follow that this money "moves" to the winter. Because November and December are also really important times for broadcasters. The run-up to Christmas is annually vital to make hay while the big X-Factors and Downtons are running. Effectively, the commercial broadcasters are losing one of these periods, despite having paid for the rights. (And while you might not shed a tear for ITV, it's worth remembering that it's that advertising that partially keeps big tournament football free on our screens).
Viewers: Not everyone likes football. Hard to believe, I know. But as explained above this is going to mess up schedules for TV viewers. Could we actually see matches shunted to BBC2 or ITV4?
FIFA: It's become a laughing stock. A corrupt laughing stock. (Remind me when that Sepp Blatter biopic is coming out again?)

I suspect that there are many more losers, and not very many more winners.

I do think there’s a strong chance that FIFA will fold or become irrelevant. I hate to say this, but we need a breakaway group of nations to form a new competition with a new organisation at the helm.

The £5 Billion League

You know how this is supposed to be austerity Britain? Well you wouldn’t know that looking at the sums announced earlier today as the conclusion of the next three years’ of live Premier League coverage were concluded.

The total cost of the rights was £5.136 billion for the seasons 2016/17 to 2018/19.

Sky has retained the lion’s share with 126 games a season compared to BT who have 42 games a season.

The Premier League tweaked the model this time around and upped the number of games they’re selling from 154 to 168 a season. Matches are sold in 7 packages: 5 packages of 28 games and 2 packages of 14 games.

The Premier League also tweaked who get what picks. There is a complicated system in place to let TV companies determine which games they put into which slots. On top of this, there are issues surrounding clubs participating in Europe and potentially issues with policing of games (ie. the times police are happy for derby matches to take place).

Let’s go through some numbers.

While the talk was of there being an increase from £3.1 billion to perhaps £4.4 billion, we in fact saw a 70% increase in rights.

If the comments of Richard Scudamore are to be interpreted correctly, other parties showed an interest in the rights (possibly Qatari owned BeIn Sports and Discovery), but BT and especially Sky maintained their stranglehold.

The cost per match – on average – goes up from £6.5m to £10.2m.

I thought it’d be fun to put this in perspective with some other TV costs.

(These are based on recently reported figures – but the entertainment industry’s economics are opaque. And yes, you get more hours of television for your money from a Premier League fixture than an episode of a TV series. That said, these rights fees don’t include production costs.)

What’s interesting is that BT has constrained its costs to a much greater extent than Sky.

BT points out that it is paying 18% more per game than under the current agreement. Whereas Sky is paying 69% more per match than previously. And because Sky has more games than before that means an overall 83% increase.

That does mean that BT has fewer first choice fixtures than previously, but the packages they have are now predominantly the Saturday 5.30pm fixtures alongside some midweek games. Whether this is because BT has already forked out nearly a billion pounds for Champions’ League (and Europa League) rights from the 2015/16 season isn’t certian.

But it does mean that BT could potentially keep their sports channels free and only charge for the Champions’ League.

While Sky has the cash to do this deal, at the end of the day, they have to make those rights pay for themselves. So do we see big increases in what Sky Sports costs to subscribers? An 83% increase has to be accommodated.

And do we see the rights paid for other sports start to diminish? Although BT has bought some rights that Sky previously had, leaving Sky with some cash in hand, it’s a drop in the ocean really. So this might begin to hurt other sports.

For example, the current Sky deal with the Football League represents a 26% decrease in what was paid previously.

Will Sky more and more want to shore up the rights they really need – Premier League football, Cricket, Golf, Rugby League, Rugby Union – and pay much less for other rights?

And you know how the Championship playoff games is always billed as the biggest game in football? Well it’s only going to get bigger. The jump from Championship to Premier League is going to be extraordinary. While getting into the Premier League could be fantastic, the fall in future could be shocking.

It’s widely reported that the NFL is the only sport earning more for domestic rights now. The NFL has deals with all three major free-to-air networks, as well as ESPN and a satellite deal with DirecTV. According to Wikipedia, that means something north of $6.5 billion per season from 2015. This chart puts the Premier League deal in perspective.

But of course the US market is something like five times the UK one. And of course it’s interesting that nearly all NFL games are played on free-to-air television. (I should note that there are local TV deals not accounted for here for the NFL. But then arguably Premier League clubs also have revenues from online video and their own channels).

But perhaps the biggest question coming from this deal is working out how do clubs stop the money just putting all this extra money straight into players’ pockets? The players deserve what they earn, but there is more than the Premier League, and fairer distribution even within the clubs will be important. In particular, some club employees are actually pretty poorly paid.

And there are still international rights to come! And those get shared equitably – which is fantastic for smaller clubs. If there’s anything like the increase in rights that the domestic rights have seen, that could be a £10bn league.

So who’s rubbing their hands today?

Park Lane car dealers; Hadley Wood and Cheshire estate agents; football agents the world over.

And who’s done badly?

Well us. If you’re a football fan, then those rights need to get paid for somehow.

At a time when inflation is low, but wages are lower, when do subscribers finally say, “That’s too expensive – I’m going to have to stop subscribing.” I’m not convinced that people won’t eventually cancel subscriptions if the costs go up too much.

Selling Your Sport Short

There’s an interesting piece in yesterday’s Guardian hypothesising that by selling itself nearly completely to pay-TV players, rugby union could be very short sighted and diminish the appeal of the sport.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the English Cricket Board has done precisely that, and we’re ending up with a sport of diminishing appeal (in spite of a few big crowds at Twenty20 fixtures). And that’s before their recent ineptness over the whole Kevin Pietersen business including the leak of some kind of internal document that they were compiling.

I’ve always held up rugby to be slightly different to that. But an hour of highlights on ITV4 on a Sunday night isn’t enough for club rugby. The BBC has the Six Nations, and ITV has the World Cup – solidly sold out next year it seems (£70 to sit in the gods at Twickenham to see England? I’ll watch on telly thanks). But most of those could go behind the pay-TV wall if organisers accepted the Sky/BT shilling. Six Nations events need only have highlights broadcast free-to-air, and only the Rugby World Cup Final is guaranteed a live free-to-air showing. The rest of the competition could go to Sky/BT.

The new European Champions’ Cup is shared between BT Sport and Sky Sports, after a protracted wrangle between the big pay-TV operators over the future of what was previously the Heineken Cup. Only the Welsh, it seems, get any kind of free-to-air highlights of the new competition (head to S4C if you have Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat).

My nephew has just started secondary school and is the rugby squad. He’s going to be limited to lots of highlights until early next year – the Aviva Premier League and the Autumn Internationals (England anyway). I wonder if that’s enough to encourage him to want to stay with the sport?

You might argue that the same could be said of football. We’ve never had top division live football free-to-air, with the exception of a brief period when ITV broadcast live fixtures – Liverpool 0 – Arsenal 2 anyone? But football is much bigger.

It would be an interesting experiment if during the next round of Premier League rights somebody came in and say broadcast a few games on a willing free-to-air station – Channel 5 say. They might do a revenue share deal surrounding advertising. We still have to see how BT Sport presents its free-to-air Champions’ League coverage next season. Champions’ League football is not a listed sport. It’s only the needs of the advertisers really, and possibly visibility of the tournament adding to its value to BT, that means we’ll get any free-to-air coverage at all.

I mention this because I can’t help comparing the UK with the US, where it’s free-to-air networks that pay the top money for NFL coverage. Three of the four networks broadcast games weekly. Similarly, packages of MLB and NBA games are sold to basic cable networks. And local stations might also offer coverage free-to-air. Live sport is ratings gold, with unskippable advertising opportunities.

BT and Champions’ League Football

I must admit that like many others, I was surprised to learn over the weekend that BT had bought all the Champions’ League live TV rights exlcusively. At a stroke they’ve knocked both ITV and Sky out of the picture starting from the 2015 season.

I’m going to try to unpick the subject a bit because there are implications on several levels.

Damage to Sky

Today there are reports that Sky has had £1.4bn knocked off its stock price as the news hits the markets. That feels to me a very short term reaction. While this is a massive show of intent on BT’s part, I don’t think it’s devastating to Sky to have lost these rights, although I suspect that whatever the next big rights package that comes up for attention will be looked at very carefully by Sky.

Let us not forget that in the earlier days of the Champions’ League, ITV Digital (née OnDigital) had most of these rights too. And they were not enough to build a brand (yes, there were other things going on there, not least piracy). Given the nature of football, we’re only really talking about fans of Manchester, London and occasionally Glasgow clubs that are being troubled by these games. Sure, the average fan might want to watch Man Utd v Barcelona, but if you live in South Wales, you might find a Sky subscription more essential in the short-term. And you can still go to the pub if that game is appealing.

That said, losing both club rugby and Champions’ League football to BT is more than bad luck for Sky. You wonder if BT might next target cricket…

Damage to ITV

This does leave a big hole in ITV’s schedules. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with Adrian Chiles et al, since they’re now really only left with England matches, major tournaments, and potentially a highlights package. Arguably, highlights could become more important in a BT-only world. Lots of people are going to be left without any access to Champions’ League football. Packaged in a more Match of the Day manner it could be a more compelling offering than the current late-night highlights which are definite afterthought to the live coverage. Also, ITV currently only has Tuesday night highlights. Highlights only make sense covering both Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But the value of those late-night ads is going to be far less than during live games.

This also leaves a big hole in ITV4 which seems to have been nurtured as a quasi-sports channel with Europa League, French Open, Tour de France, British motorsport and so on. In value terms though, the Europa League is limiting.

Free To Air

As something of a sop to sponsors (not the football loving public), BT has said that it’ll make some games available free-to-air. This would seem to include the final, but will also include at least one match featuring each British club in the competition. However given that each team that makes the league part of the competition is guaranteed at least 6 fixtures, this isn’t really a great deal.

It’s also worth examining how those games might be made available. Currently, BT Sport is carried on all the digital platforms. However on Freeview, it’s channels are carried on the COM4 and COM6 multiplexes. Neither of these have as much carriage as those multiplexes that carry BBC and ITV channels – something like 19.6m households compared with 26.8m households which cover the entire country. So unless those free-to-air games are rebroadcast on a Public Service channel like ITV, or BT Sport changes mulitplexes, there will be millions of households who miss out on these free games.

In the UK we have a designated set of Listed Events. In 2008, David Davies led a team that was to review what was included and excluded on that list, but after despite the team doing work on the subject, the review was scrapped in 2010.

At the time, there was a promise that it would be looked at again post digital switchover in 2013:

The current economic climate also points to us not making a decision at this time which could adversely impact on sport at the grassroots. I have therefore decided to defer any review until 2013, when we will look at this again.

Well of course, digital switchover was completed at the end of last year. And there is no sign of a review of the list, which may or may not be a good thing to be honest given the political muscle of major sporting bodies. David Davies’ group did not recommend that the Champions’ League was added to the list). We are, however, left with the 1998 list of events.

Anyway, the Champions’ League Final (or European Cup) is not on the list – either in terms of live or highlights.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) still has its Olympic Charter, section 48 of which still says:

The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

Unlike the IOC, UEFA has no “charter” to further its competitions’ reaches. So it can happily sell its tournaments to its highest bidders.

The only people who have any real sway in these matters are sponsors of course. Sponsors like Heineken may be paying as much as $70m a season for Champions’ League sponsorship may question whether they’re losing out under this deal. With six headline sponsors (plus another couple), there is some serious money at play. But the UK is only a percentage of that. UEFA meanwhile is making an additional £500m ($800m) on these rights. So if sponsorships aren’t quite the same value in future, they can live with it.

Gain For BT

This does make them closer to being a real player in the TV sport market. I still think that for most, it’ll be Sky Sports first and then BT Sport. Certainly still for football. But with the end of the Heineken Cup next year, and in all likelihood a replacement tournament on BT Sport, a rugby union fan might well decide that the England autumn internationals on Sky aren’t enough to warrant a subscription.

Both Sky and BT will already be thinking about the next round of Premier League rights. These Champions’ League rights don’t come into play until year three of the current Premier League offering. So there’ll be even more incentive to bid up those rights with BT wanting a bigger slice of the pie. The Premier League must already be rubbing their hands with glee.

BT also needs to work out how it’s going to broadcast all 350 games for which it has rights. Up until now, they’ve not really pushed their own TV platform to viewers who have Sky packages, but I’m not certain that BT will replicate the offering Sky has for Match Choice on Champions’ League rights – at least on satellite. I can see them broadcasting two or three games on their channels and offering the others via broadband – pushing their own boxes. Considering that sometimes much better games are going on elsewhere in Europe, this could be challenging for some football fans.

Viewers

What is clear is that this state of affairs isn’t good for the consumer. If you want to watch the biggest teams in Britain, you need to take out two premium TV subscriptions to get full coverage. Yes, BT Sport is free to BT Broadband customers, but with fees already going up in January, it’d be a fool who believed this cost wasn’t being subsidised by every BT customer – whether or not they actually take the BT Sport package.

Disclaimer: I pay for Sky Sports, and have BT Broadband entitling me to BT Sport. Indeed I switched broadband suppliers to get BT Broadband to take their sports offering. I guess it’s working for BT.