BT Sport promise bold approach - on and off the field
April 17, 2013
Lawrence Dallaglio will be the face of BT Sport's coverage of both Aviva Premiership and Top 14 rugby © Getty Images
"We've got to create heroes," declared Grant Best, BT Sport's senior executive producer and the man determined to make sure the new channel's output packs a punch equal to that of their chequebook that has secured an enviable portfolio of broadcast rights - including the Aviva Premiership.
BT Sport secured exclusive rights to English rugby's top flight for the next four seasons thanks to a game-changing £152m deal with Premiership Rugby that kicks in later this year. It was a bold move - that followed an equally audacious foray into the Premier League football rights market - and you sense it will not be their last.
"We want to become the home of club rugby," added a bullish Best, an award-winning director who joined BT Sport last year having carved out his reputation at Sky Sports and ESPN. His experience in the United States has certainly influenced his approach - and delivery.
Expect innovation before, during and after games - whether they have the rights to show the actual action or not - with rivals Sky Sports and the BBC still boasting some significant properties in the form of the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations respectively. "We will be everywhere, regardless of rights," promised Best, who cited ESPN's top-rating pre and post-game programming around the Super Bowl - and other major events that they do not own - as key examples of how to nurture an audience.
Former England international Lawrence Dallaglio has already been confirmed as BT Sport's 'leading expert' for their entire rugby output which will include France's Top 14 that we are promised will feature strongly in their schedule. As a result the likes of Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson and Racing Metro's Jonathan Sexton are set to be afforded as much of the spotlight as their Premiership counterparts."If it is a big game then Lawrence will be there," assured Best.
The rest of the on-air team are yet to be confirmed with a 69-game commitment to the Premiership alone - three games each week - set to demand strength in depth when it comes to commentary and analysis. It also offers an abundance of potential 'appointments to view' with a fixed Saturday afternoon slot following the high-profile 12.45 Premier League kick off among those in the mix. We can surely expect the usual array of former and current players but among the ideas fuelling their enthusiasm is the use of well-known fans, and not so famous faces, as pundits, greater use of GPS, ref cams and mid-game interviews.
One aspect of their production plan guaranteed to take a central role is the newly-refurbished studios at the former Olympic Park broadcast centre in London. Best hinted at the use of live audiences in a 'Top Gear-style' environment with interaction a key part of their plans. "Rugby has got a responsibility to sell itself more, and get away from its elitist, middle-class image," said Dallaglio, hinting further at the need for mass appeal. "We've got to make the sport less complicated without losing its essence."
Rugby will help launch the channel with the latest staging of the snappily-titled J.P Morgan Asset Management Premiership Rugby 7s Series on its opening weekend with a certain amount of mystery still surrounding how supporters will be able to tune in.
With talks about possible content share deal with Sky Sports apparently stalled, fans looking for their armchair fix will be able to access BT Sport via a Sky box but crucially it will not be provided by them. At the current time, it appears customers will have to pay BT directly for the new channels with two new outlets set to be supplemented by one, consolidated ESPN channel. As a result, BT will not have to share any of its subscription revenues with Sky but it also means they will not have access to their main rival's 10m+ customers of which around 5m are thought to take Sky Sports.
Best does not appear overly concerned with BT's broadband subscriber base of 7m bringing more than a little comfort. Direct access to that highly-prized customer base - along with the 770,000 or so existing BT Vision customers - provides them with a firm footing on which to build and they are clearly confident they can tempt many of them with their top flight sport offering - with preferential rates set to help. The exact cost of the channels for new and existing customers will be announced in the coming months with no news yet as to whether Virgin customers will have access even if they want to.
The one thing that would help convince any wavering customers is European rugby and BT Sport are well aware of its appeal. Their big-money deal with Premiership Rugby included the rights to European games as of the 2015-16 season - a controversial aspect of the agreement that continues to threaten the jewel in the European rugby crown.
As things stand there will be no Heineken Cup beyond next season with the European partners having repeatedly failed to agree on a new format with the debate driven by Premiership Rugby who have served notice to quit the competition and are demanding radical changes in the format and income distribution.
With no sign of a resolution, Premiership Rugby are considering alternatives with the issue clouded further by a fresh broadcast rights deal agreement between European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisers of the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup, and Sky Sports. But Best and co have their eyes on the European prize they thought their massive outlay had secured.
"We want to be part of that competition whatever that competition will become... Our intention is to be involved," said Best, who was not-so-keen when pressed on the prospect of perhaps adding the PRO12 to his stable of events and strengthening his hand yet further.
That is not to say they are not interested in broadening their range at some point in the future although Sky Sports have moved to make the end of year international window their own with deals with deals with Ireland, France and Italy in recent months. "We will be interested in any rights that become available," added Best.
Dallaglio issued his own warning to the warring factions who cannot agree on the European rugby landscape. "It does no-one any favours to be arguing in the build up to the World Cup," he said in reference to the 2015 showpiece. "The next few years are going to be pivotal."
Four meetings between the various European stakeholders have so far failed to break the deadlock and with no further summits planned someone should tell them it's good to talk.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.