BSkyB’s rivals scheme over new live football rights deals

David Hellier
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Word that ITV might be interested in showing live Premier League matches for the first time ever is fascinating. If the unlikely move occurred, ITV would bring elite football back to a broader audience after more than 20 years of having it shown exclusively live on pay-per-view television.

Not everybody would be cheering from their armchairs though. The terrestrial channel, which has proved so adept at broadcasting dramas such as Downton Abbey in the recent past, as well as entertainment shows such as the X Factor, has not always excelled in the broadcast of live football.

In 2009, ITV managed to miss the winning goal for Everton in a Merseyside FA Cup derby by inadvertently showing an ad as the game went into extra-time and a year later its viewers on an HD channel missed an England goal for similar reasons.

The last time ITV showed live top flight league football was in the days of the late commentator Brian Moore when it had the rights to live pre-Premier League football, usually on a Sunday afternoon.

The combination of free-to-air live screening (making it easy to watch from home) and hooliganism on the terraces (making it scary to watch at the grounds) combined to produce a lacklustre formula of often dreary matches watched by small crowds.

BSkyB came along and revolutionised football, bringing better production values, millions of pounds of investment (some of which went into up-dating stadia) and its package of paid for live football managed to attract viewers to the grounds as well as their armchairs or to pubs. Football has not looked back since, so there may be many in the football world not exactly jumping for joy were ITV to return to the table.

The reason it might do so is that BT Vision, which won the rights to screen 38 games a season in the latest bidding round, paid a fortune.

It paid a staggering £738m over three years for the privilege, a sum that analysts at Espirito Santo say could lead to a loss of £240m even if it manages to wholesale the rights.

ITV could be a willing buyer of live Premier League rights at the right price, although there could be several licencing rules to overcome first. It currently broadcasts live FA Cup matches, Champions League games and some England games and could use more prestige football matches to sell to advertisers aiming at a predominantly male market.

For ITV there are obvious synergies. Despite its hiccups in the past, the channel is an experienced sports broadcaster and could bring its vast experience and facilities to help out BT Vision in the production of its new football-related channel. The two media groups are already partners in the YouView venture, the successor to Freeview, and analysts such as Alex de Groote at Panmure Gordon were positive yesterday about the possibility of an alliance. BT Vision, on the other hand, needs to strike a balance as to who it sells its expensively acquired product on to. Selling the package in its entirety to Virgin Media makes sense because those subscribers will pay for it. Selling to ITV, where viewers do not pay a subscription, is a different thing altogether.

Selling a taster package of between two and half a dozen games might just work accompanied by marketing to the fuller BT Vision package. But more than that would make the BT package hard to sell if viewers knew they could get most of the content for free elsewhere. Taking on BSkyB in the football game is a risky business as others have found. Doing it with a partner might just make sense.