Premier League TV rights battle kicks off

Image copyright Getty Images

The next round of Premier League football television rights are up for grabs and there appears to be all to play for, with a number of potential new entrants poised to step into the bidding battle.

The league is seeking an increase on the current £5.14bn television deal which entails 168 live matches a season, with Sky currently holding five packages of games and BT two.

The new tender document has now been released to interested bidders for the three-year cycle from 2019 to 2022. There will be an increased number of games – 200 – out of the total 380 matches each season, made available for live broadcast.

The live rights consist of five packages of 32 matches and two packages of 20 matches per season, with no single buyer allowed to acquire more than 148 matches each season.

Meanwhile, in other changes, there will be three complete rounds of 10 midweek matches shown live, plus one set of Bank Holiday games, as well as eight individual games being shown on a Saturday night.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Eight games a season will be competing for viewers with prime-time Saturday night programming

As well as these changes, the current Sky-BT duopoly could be shaken up by new digital entrants, with WPP advertising executive Sir Martin Sorrell and Manchester United boss Ed Woodward among those predicting an entry into the bidding war by a tech giant such as Amazon, Facebook, Twitter or Netflix.

Bids are due in by the end of January, with the winning bidder set to be announced at the start of February.

‘Bidding imponderables’

“It is the most fascinating tender process ever,” says one TV industry insider with extensive experience of the sports rights bidding process.

“There are so many imponderables. Is the sports right bubble going to burst? Are these new names in the frame going to risk coming in at the very top just before the bubble potentially pops?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Industry figures will be watching closely to see if rights values continue to rise

“Or maybe they will decide to wait this time and see if it does burst, and they can then pick up rights cheaper next time round.”

A number of tech giants have already dipped their toes into the world of live televised sport.

Amazon loss-leader?

For example, Amazon has already gone for year-round content by securing ATP tennis rights. Amazon Prime members in the UK and Republic of Ireland will have access to 37 ATP world tour events.

Image copyright Amazon/Youtube
Image caption Amazon is using its Prime service to show ATP tennis in the UK

The move was groundbreaking in that it saw tennis move away from from traditional linear TV to an over-the-top (OTT) offering selling directly to consumers via the internet – bypassing telecommunications, cable or broadcast television service providers.

Amazon then snapped up the UK rights to the US Open tennis tournament, precipitating speculation it is now ready to bid for Premier League rights.

“I am guessing that if they were able to win a package or two of games it would be a loss-leader to drive people to Amazon Prime,” says the sports rights industry insider.

“But I am not sure if there is enough content in the Premier League rights for the Amazon business model. Also it might not be premium enough. No offence to these clubs, but something like Stoke City against Huddersfield Town might not be a great offering for them.

Image copyright BBC Sport

“Also Premier League football has not got great re-usability. It is not like a TV programme or film where it doesn’t matter if you watch it two days later.

“After a Premier League game everyone knows the score and the excitement is quickly gone.”

Facebook ‘determined’

Facebook has also refused to rule out entering the Premier League bidding to stream live matches. In conjunction with Fox Sports it has streamed a number of Uefa Champions League games on Facebook Live this season.

Meanwhile, the ICC’s Champions Trophy cricket final was broadcast live on Facebook in June in countries where no broadcaster had bought the rights.

Image caption Facebook partnered Fox Sports in the US to show Champions League games

And this autumn it unsuccessfully bid $610m (£456m) for the rights to stream five years of cricket games from the Indian Premier League.

“That IPL bid was really interesting as it showed they are really determined to be a sports player,” says Robin Jellis, editor of magazine TV Sports Markets.

“If a new player does come in it has the potential to drive up the cost, which is not something the Premier League will object to.

“The biggest driver of the price for them is competition, or perceived competition.”

New Sky channels

The biggest player that any serious competitor will have to take on is Sky, of course, which has held rights to live Premier League games since the foundation of the competition back in season 1992-93.

The broadcast giant has recently gone for new “vertical” packing of its sports rights; with new channels dedicated solely to individual sports such as football, cricket, golf and F1.

Not to win any Premier League rights – which admittedly seems an unlikely outcome – would be a spanner in the works of that model.

Image copyright SkySports
Image caption Sky has divided up its sports offering into separate dedicated channels

“Sky’s business model has been built upon it having the Premier League. And football has become more important for them this time around,” says Mr Jellis.

“If they were to lose a package or two of their current five, it would not be ideal for them, but they could still find themselves with 100 games a season. But if they lost all their packages it would be a complete disaster.”

One interesting factor will be the approach Disney takes. It has recently bought 21st Century Fox -including Fox’s 39% ownership of Sky. Prior to the close of the deal, it is anticipated that 21st Century Fox will look to complete its planned acquisition of the 61% of Sky it doesn’t already own.

BT a strong number two?

In contrast with Sky, sport for BT is an add-on to its core telecoms and data services.

BT Sport is no longer free for broadband customers, and has to pay its own way. The firm has spent £3.8bn on football rights since 2012, but now says it is not in a situation where having Premier League TV rights is “existential for us”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption BT Sport stunned football by winning Premier League live rights back in 2012

The BT group’s ambition is to retain its position as a strong number two behind Sky in pay-TV sports. It also has Premiership Rugby and Champions League football, so to lose the Premier League football would not be a complete sporting disaster.

“My guess is that the status quo and Sky and BT will retain their rights,” says Mr Jellis. “If anything does happen it will be Amazon or Facebook winning one of the packages of matches.

“Although there might be some complete surprise, such as we had five years ago when BT emerged from total secrecy to win live games for the first time.”

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