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BT's UEFA Champions League Deal - Effects And Side Effects

08/03/2017 12:27
Johner Images via Getty Images

The announcement of BT's £1.2bn deal to retain the UEFA Champions League and Europa League until 2020/21 finally cements the company's status as a permanent fixture in the UK TV sports market.

Despite its high-profile series of rights acquisitions, there remained the mild suspicion that BT Sport's entry into the marketplace would ultimately go the way of its predecessors; whilst comparisons with Setanta and ESPN UK were somewhat spurious, Sky had previously triumphed over a conveyor belt of competitors including ITV Digital and thus could reasonably expect to see off the challenge of yet another opponent, particularly one with no prior experience in direct retail pay-TV.

The landscape has, of course, changed since the days of competing smart cards. Sky's proficiency in subscription television has been met head on with BT's expertise in those areas where future battles will take place: high-speed broadband, mobile technology and IPTV. Today's announcement furthers BT's aim of attracting younger, more tech-savvy customers whilst also showcasing the company's modern distribution methods ahead of future rights battles; the Premier League and other organisations will undoubtedly watch these developments with interest.

UEFA's decision to maintain pay-TV exclusivity does little to assuage the fears of those concerned with BT's relatively low viewing figures in comparison with those of Sky & ITV. To this end, the company has announced its intention to make in-play clips, highlights (previously held by ITV) and support programming freely available via social media; the finals of both competitions will, once again, be live on YouTube.

Undoubtedly, there is an expectation amongst social media users that, within seconds of a goal being scored or a contentious incident occurring, video of the event will be available - officially or otherwise - on Twitter and Facebook; this agreement allows BT to continue distributing such material alongside all manner of associated pre-roll and in-video advertisements. In the era of mobile viewing - coupled with the continuing trend for fans consuming clips rather than viewing entire matches - this is a potential long-term gold mine for BT; however, two key issues arise from the company's further acquisition of the highlights package.

Firstly, does this signal the long-term extinction of traditional delayed coverage on linear TV? Post-match compendiums will obviously remain on free-to-air television for many years to come, but their viewing figures and associated value to broadcasters will undoubtedly be compromised if the key ingredients have already been on display across social media for hours beforehand; we'll explore this area in more detail in a forthcoming article.

Secondly, whilst many have embraced Twitter and Facebook in recent years, a sizeable section of the population remains outside the social media revolution. BT Sport's website and mobile apps are unlikely to challenge the BBC's dominant position in the marketplace; nonetheless, offering clips and long form highlights on platforms not requiring a login would boost BT's reach in this area. The addition of a dedicated goal alerts app, similar to Sky Sports' Football Score Centre, would be a welcome development.

BT is the only major sports pay-TV provider in the UK which does not offer traditional subscription packages; other than viewers with Sky equipment, potential customers require a BT Broadband contract to access BT Sport channels. In the future, BT could offer NOW TV-style day/week/month passes for viewing on PCs, Macs, mobiles/tablets and over-the-top streaming devices such as the Roku and Amazon's Fire TV; whilst securing long-term broadband/phone customers is the driving force behind BT Sport, such 'one-off' purchasing options can - with the acquisition of customer data - convert occasional viewers into permanent customers.

The ramifications for Sky go beyond the Champions League and, indeed, Sky Sports itself; in the long-term, today's deal allows BT to further advance its overall agenda of attracting high-paying 'quad' customers with TV, broadband, phone and mobile packages. As a key property, the Champions League is a platform for both 4K UHD and Dolby Atmos, premium BT TV offerings designed to tempt customers away from the similarly positioned Sky Q.

Arguably, the biggest loser in today's announcement is ITV - broadcast partner of the Champions League since the competition's inception in 1992/93 - though there remains the possibility of a subletting agreement with BT. Channel 4 has also been earmarked as a potential terrestrial partner; however, BT's statements thus far suggest that no such deal is imminent.

Meanwhile, today's announcement - whilst highly significant - is only a precursor to the biggest domestic battle of all; attention now turns to the Premier League auction, expected in 2018. Despite suggestions that rights fees are almost at their peak, Super Sunday from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is surely a scenario which Sky will seek to avoid whatever the cost.

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