The business of football TV rights used to be relatively simple.
There were rights to show live games, and rights to show highlights. For years, Sky dominated the live market, crushing a series of challengers with its financial fire-power and superior coverage. Highlights were often reserved for traditional free-to-air TV channels such as ITV and the BBC.
Viewing habits were relatively straightforward too. Sports fans tend to be creatures of habit, with those not attending the games deciding, instead, to subscribe to Sky or head to the nearest pub showing the match. Some hours later, many others would settle down in front of their living-room TVs to catch the highlights.
This pattern is not dead, by any means, but it is evolving. For a start, Sky’s hegemony has been broken. Yesterday BT agreed to pay an eye-watering £1.2bn to retain the rights to show live Champions League games in the UK. Sky clearly feels the amount is excessive, a view shared by many analysts – yet BT shares were unaffected, closing narrowly in the green yesterday despite the wider FTSE ending in the red. A British stock market giant maintaining the courage of its convictions paints a very different picture to the days when challengers such as Setanta and ESPN dared to step on Sky’s Premier League patch and were subsequently booted off the park.
More importantly, governing bodies and broadcasters are increasingly aware of the need to adapt to how modern fans view sport and interact with their favourite teams and sporting heroes. Yesterday’s Uefa statement praised BT as an “innovative broadcast partner... covering [the games] in new ways.”
Uefa added: “We are excited about their future plans for the use of social media which will engage a growing fanbase that consumes sport in different ways.”
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It is not yet clear exactly how BT will carve up its coverage, but as traditional football TV audiences slide, the company must be open to new tactics. Another arrangement with YouTube is expected, alongside potential deals with platforms such as Twitter. It has promised to "reach new audiences, by making clips, weekly highlights, UEFA’s magazine show, and both finals available for free on social media."
Giving a nod to its tie-up with EE, BT said it would "also seek to bring the best of the action to its large mobile customer base."
Ever since the big bucks started rolling into the Premier League and Champions League 25 years ago, naysayers have warned of a bursting bubble. BT’s £1.2bn bill may look even more exorbitant than Wayne Rooney’s salary, but there remains little sign of football’s boom going bust. The market is, however, being re-shaped by changing habits among western viewers. BT will need to work hard to attract an audience sizeable enough to justify the company’s lavish outlay.