Dancing the Tango, BT and Discovery, but being second on the floor after Sky isn’t easy, writes Julian Clover.
Every autumn, celebrities slap on the fake tan and head out on the dancefloor with a professional partner to compete in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Viewers have two things on their minds, who will lift the glitterball trophy, and will any of the celebrities fall for the sparkling sequins of their professional partner? It is, at least according to the gossip columns, the ‘Curse of Strictly’.
Sky Sports has held the rights to the Premier League since its inception in 1992, but since 2007 it has shared the rights with a string of other broadcasters, sparked by the intervention of the European Commission on competition grounds. Giving viewers a choice also meant more money for the Premier League and an early example of subscription stacking.
First on the dancefloor was Setanta Sports, who secured two of the available six packages from 2007 to 2010, giving it 46 live matches a season to Sky’s 92. But by 2009 Setanta’s UK operations were in trouble, having already defaulted on payments to the Scottish Premier League, the English Premier League terminated its contract.
For the 2009/10 season, Setanta’s 92 matches were picked up by ESPN, which had been building its presence in the UK and Europe. But four years in, ESPN began to get cold feet, its Classic Sports channel was folded up and it was BT Sport that picked up rights.
BT Sport was set up as a means to draw people to BT and its broadband packages – I was recently called to see if I would be interested in such a package but on my street in Central Cambridge just 3.5 Mbps was possible. Over time BT has begun to charge for its sports and a portfolio that also includes Premiership Rugby and International Cricket, and has signed deals with Sky that allow subscribers to both companies to see each other’s channels.
But a change of management from the flamboyant Gavin Patterson to Philip Jansen signalled a change of direction. BT’s financial statements put the emphasis back onto its core business, in particular broadband, and started to leave TV behind.
The emergence last year of BT’s plans to sell or find a partner for BT Sport wasn’t a surprise. However, there were two names on its dancecard, DAZN and Discovery, and it was with the US giant with which BT has chosen to tango.
The deal is far from done, but will keep interest for the major sports rights holders when the first post-Covid renewals approach. Both packaging and branding will be areas to watch. Will Eurosport stay in basic pay for UK audiences with BT Sport being a premium brand, or will the BT Sports channels and its enhanced viewing apps find themselves as part of the discovery+ offer?
And does Discovery have the staying power to break the curse that has seen off previous holders of that second set of Premier League rights? It certainly has deep pockets to its flared trousers.