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Sport: Exclusive: BT to spend billions as it throws down gauntlet to Sky over sports coverage: Latest challenger to powerful broadcaster will target football, club rugby and women's tennis
[January 11, 2013]

Sport: Exclusive: BT to spend billions as it throws down gauntlet to Sky over sports coverage: Latest challenger to powerful broadcaster will target football, club rugby and women's tennis

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) BT is expected to earmark billions of pounds over the next decade to spend on sports rights in a sustained attempt to challenge Sky, as the new broadcaster gears up to launch two sports channels in July.

The telecom company, which laid down a marker when it spent pounds 738m on 38 live Premier League matches per season last year, will consider launching bids for a host of other major football properties including the FA Cup, Champions League and England internationals.

It will also target other sports, having already signed a pounds 152m club rugby deal that has caused major ructions within the game. But executives are also acutely aware that the arrival of BT in the market has fuelled rights inflation and are determined not to overpay.

With Sky also cutting back on some rights to pay for its increased investment of pounds 2.3bn in Premier League football, the new competitive landscape will not be good news for all sports.

This week BT will announce that it has signed a four-year deal with the Women's Tennis Association to screen 800 hours of live tennis a year. It hopes to capitalise on the increased appeal of the British players Heather Watson and Laura Robson on the back of results that have catapulted them into the world's top 50.

Simon Green, the head of BT Sport, said the WTA deal would be the first of several to try to give more exposure to women's sport. "This is our first women's sport for the channels and we see a genuine opportunity to really develop the exposure for women's sport with our new channels. We are focusing on several more women's sports and we hope to be able to announce more rights soon," said Green.

In addition to its domestic rugby rights, BT is awaiting the outcome of a dispute between European Rugby Cup and Premiership Rugby over the future shape of European competition. It has also signed deals to show Italian, Brazilian, French and US football and is convinced all can be packaged and marketed more attractively than they are at present.

ESPN, considering its options in the UK after the Premier League auction left it without any live top-flight football, could do a deal with BT to allow it to buy out the final year of its FA Cup contract if it decides to close its UK channel. More FA Cup rights and live rights to England games home and away, held by ITV, will become available at the end of next season. Under a new centralised system Uefa will sell the rights to European Championships and World Cup qualifiers on behalf of the FA. ITV and BSkyB have the rights to live Champions League football tied up until the end of the 2014-15 season but BT Sport is also likely to bid for those when they become available.

Although Sky has responded to the emergence of a genuine threat to its dominance of sports broadcasting by securing the rights to sports such as cricket until the end of the decade, there is a belief at BT that enough opportunities remain to make a success of its high-profile launch.

The new sports channels will be made available to Sky viewers but will also be aggressively marketed to existing BT customers, with deals for those who also subscribe to its telephone, broadband and television services. Having recently signed a 10-year lease on the studios in the former International Broadcasting Centre at the Olympic Park and a long-term contract with Sunset+Vine to produce coverage of its 38 top-flight football matches and 69 live Aviva Premiership rugby games per season, BT has reiterated its long-term commitment to the project.

Marc Watson, the BT Vision chief executive, told the Guardian that the launch of BT Sport was part of a "broader strategy" to bring in revenue from its "triple play" proposition. "Ultimately we'll have three very strong brands in the marketplace - BT Sport [the sports channels], BT YouView including BT Vision [the television service) and BT Infinity [superfast broadband]. The strategy is to get behind these products and grow the business," he said.

"We've got a job to do to create BT Sport as a credible brand in the marketplace. That won't happen overnight but, if you've got the top matches, that helps." The chairman of the production company that will oversee live output for BT Sport, which has signed up Jake Humphrey as its main anchor, said it was determined to differentiate itself from rivals. The Sunset+Vine chairman, Jeff Foulser, told the Guardian it would "look at things a bit differently and be a bit adventurous".

BT the new major player, page 46 = Captions: BT has shown it means business by signing up Jake Humphrey as anchor man for its sports channel (c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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