Aviva Premiership Comment
The Game Changer
May 9, 2013
BT Vision chief executive Marc Watson launches the BT Sport channels © PA Photos
Aviva Premiership officials may have crowned their 'Game Changer' of the season on Thursday night but that honour was arguably claimed earlier in the day with the launch of BT Sport's audacious bid to break Sky's stranglehold on the UK's sports pay-TV market.
BT Sport - How can I watch it?
The new kids on the broadcasting block are no strangers to headline-grabbing moves having signalled their intent with a trolley dash that secured them, amongst other things, a feast of Premier League football for a staggering £736m and exclusive rights to the Aviva Premiership for the next four years for the small matter of £152m. But their latest ploy to 'shake things up' and 'give sport back to the people' is set to top the lot with this wealth of high-profile sports content yours for nothing - as long as you are a BT Broadband customer.
It was always going to take a bold pricing approach to tempt armchair fans into expanding their TV portfolios and executives hinted at such last month - but no-one was expecting it to be offered for free. A simple but powerful calling card that stunned the media hordes that had gathered at BT Sport's Olympic Park home into silence and will surely have had their rivals spluttering some four-letter words of their own over their morning coffee.
As impressive BT Sport's portfolio of rights, it is the attractive price that is sure to interest those who currently have to pay £42.50 for Sky Sports for their sporting fix and more to ESPN if they are to have complete coverage. Sky's own impressive portfolio and reputation for excellence, forged over the last 22 years, and customers' inability to get their heads around what is not a like-for-like comparison is set to confuse matters. But the viewing habits of fans are not BT Sport's main concern with the TV aspect of their operation only part of an intriguing battle to secure a greater share of the 20m plus homes that have broadband already - approximately 6m of whom are BT customers - and those who are yet to get sign-up.
Sky have made great strides in this area in recent years and have secured a reported 4m of their own subscribers with BT determined to reassert themselves in this market and capitalise on an increasing desire among consumers to bundle their TV, phone and broadband services in order to secure the best value for money while also harnessing the ever-changing technological landscape.
The fact that BT Sport are prepared to give away content that has cost them hundreds of millions of pounds not only signals their intent to become a major player in the market but also highlights the profit potential that they see in the broadband sphere. "BT is the home of broadband so the fight for customers will now take place on our own turf," declared a bullish Ian Livingston, BT's chief executive.
His hunger for the fight was echoed by Gavin Patterson, BT Retail's chief executive who added: "The launch of BT Sport is an important moment for the UK TV market. We will shake up the market which is great news for sports fans whether their passion is football, rugby or any of the other sports we will be showing. Fans will hopefully be cheering across the UK at the prospect of watching their favourite teams for free."
It is a calculated gamble on BT Sport's part but don't be too concerned about their financial fortunes. If the extent of their expenditure to date has not hammered home how deep their pockets are then a quick glance at their most recent accounts will reveal a pre-tax profit of £2.45bn - a sizeable war chest. In contrast, BSkyB suffered in the immediate aftermath of BT Sport's announcement with their share price taking a dive.
The Premiership deal will kick in later this year with Sunset+Vine set to produce the live coverage as they have done for ESPN. But the demands of covering up to 69 live games have also prompted another significant workout for the BT Sport chequebook to secure the talent to bring the action to the screen.
BT Sport will offer their three sports channels for free to those who subscribe to their broadband service © Getty Images
Lawrence Dallaglio has long-been pencilled in as the main face of BT Sport's rugby output, that will include what they hope will include two live games from France's Top 14 each week, and he will front the coverage alongside Craig Doyle, the former BBC presenter and part-time double-glazing salesman, who will make the switch from ITV's Premiership highlights show. Doyle's ITV co-hort and giant of the after-dinner speaking world, Martin Bayfield, will also be coming along for the ride as a reporter.
There are plenty of other faces familiar to fans of the sport. ESPN's success over the last few seasons during which they have shared the Premiership rights with Sky Sports is reflected in the recruitment of analysts Austin Healy and Ben Kay, commentator Nick Mullins and pitchside reporter Sarra Elgan. The absence of regular ESPN presenter Mark Durden-Smith from our TV screens will certainly be felt by those who have come to love his unique style and attempts to mix it when it comes to banter with his on-air colleagues.
BT Sport trawled another broadcast rival - the BBC - to complete their line-up. Former England international, 5 Live mainstay and celebrity chef Matt Dawson will add his forthright views to the channel's impressive roster of on-air talent while 5 Live commentator Alastair Ekyn will also swap the corporation for the industry's newest player.
Of course BT Sport has won nothing yet except our attention. The channels do not go live until the start of August and their studios are a work-in-progress but Simon Green, Head of BT Sport, is adamant that they can take rugby coverage "to a new level, especially with the talent we have".
A lot will depend on the finished product when we can expect more innovation with the promise of an unprecedented insight into team tactics that are set to become as clear as BT Sport's own strategy.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.