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Kevin Roberts, editorial director of SportBusiness Group, discusses BT’s entrance into the UK sports broadcasting market….

Kevin Roberts, editorial director of SportBusiness Group, discusses BT’s entrance into the UK sports broadcasting market….


BT Vision has become the company du jour in the sports TV market.

Having come out of left field to take a significant chunk of English Premier League rights and shove ESPN out of the picture, it followed up by announcing a record breaking £152 million ($260m) deal with England’s top rugby clubs. This covers not  only the Aviva premiership but – this being rugby where nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems or could be – for a yet-to-be-launched and un-named competition which may (or may not of course) replace the Heineken Cup, rugby’s closest equivalent to the UEFA Champions League.

Both the EPL and Rugby Premiership will do very well out of the deals but  in an interview  accompanying the announcement, BT Vision’s CEO Mark Watson uttered a sentence which will send a shiver along the spines of some administrators across sport  and certainly appears to challenge current thinking.

“We saw in rugby an opportunity to own a sport exclusively,” he said.

Nothing wrong with ‘exclusive’ of course, that is where the real financial and commercial power of sports rights lies. But the concept of ‘own a sport’ takes us into rather different territory.

Everybody accepts that he who pays the piper call the tune and that has, to an extent, to be the case in sport. In relation to television the most obvious result of this over the years has been the rearrangement of fixtures to suit viewing times – generally considered a small price to pay.

But this doesn’t constitute ownership.

The most successful relationship between sport and television tend to be based on good partnerships rather than one party owning the other. It may be a partnership based on fear as much as love as rights owners can be relatively picky in a buoyant market and are not under an enduring obligation to go for the money every time. Consequently an overly needy or demanding broadcaster could find they don’t get a second crack at the rights.

By the same token, rights owners are (or should be) anxious to work hard for their broadcasters and build strong and positive relationships because when the market flattens and there is less competition, they want to maintain as much of the rights value as possible.

Broadcasters with rights to top level football around the world find themselves in something of a Catch 22 situation. They pay lots of money for the rights, then focus on delivering excellent, often ground breaking, coverage designed to drive new subscriptions. But their success inevitably pushes the value of the rights up next time they become available – so long as the market is competitive.

With new players coming onto the market for football rights, whether through expansion and acquisition like Al Jazeera in France or evolution of telcos like BT Vision, the financial ceiling seems to be some way in the distance.

Under these conditions, broadcasters are never the owners of the sport unless – like ESPN’s X Games – they have founded them.  Otherwise they simply have time constrained access for which they first pay handsomely and then work hard to increase their value so than when the next lease comes up it costs them more. That doesn’t sound like ownership.

It will be interesting to see how BT Vision’s ‘ownership’ of rugby pans out and what lessons can be learned by football and in particular owners of second- or third-tier football rights around the world.