As football clubs across the country prepare for the start of the new season, the nation’s broadcasters have also been making moves for their own battle for supremacy, which takes place not only in our living rooms but on our mobile devices too.
Last year saw arguably the most significant development in UK sports television since the launch of Sky Sports itself, with BT Sport’s arrival in the market. Unlike Setanta or ESPN, BT has the ambition and the money to mount a serious long-term challenge to Sky’s supremacy.
Sky’s big innovation for 2014-15 is the launch of Sky Sports 5, a football-only channel that brings it perilously close to ESPN 8 ‘The Ocho’, the satirical channel featured in the movie Dodgeball that boasted “if it’s almost a sport, we’ve got it here.”
Sky Sports 5
Sky Sports 5 will show live UEFA Champions League matches (for one season), UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers not involving England, La Liga and Dutch top flight matches.
You’d think there isn’t really enough content for a new channel, but it’s Sky’s latest attempt to make the most of its existing rights, just like the Sky Sports Ashes or Sky Sports Ryder Cup, which will launch later this year, pop-up channels and the Sky Sports F1 station.
The company is doing the same with the Premier League, allowing fans of any club to view a range of content related to their team on Demand, including matches, interviews and documentaries.
“For the first time, Sky Sports viewers can download and enjoy some of the best content dedicated to their team, whenever they want,” says Gary Hughes, Sky Sports Head of Football.
To support this strategy, Sky Sports News is to be renamed Sky Sports HQ and has been moved to channel 401 on Sky and 501 on Virgin Media. This is so the channel can act as a ‘gateway’ to the other six Sky Sports channels in addition to being the UK’s only 24 hour sports new service.
New, more personalised, mobile apps will complement the relaunch, allowing Sky Sports subscribers to view the latest news, competition information and video highlights on their smartphone and tablet, while the Sky Sports Live Football Scores Centre is getting a facelift too.
An offer of two years’ free broadband is also on offer for Sky Sports subscribers when they activate Sky Sports 5, presumably in an effort to beat BT’s offer of free BT Sport to all its broadband customers. Sky’s offer is limited to copper broadband, not fibre, and taking advantage of the deal renews a subscriber’s contract for another 18 months, meaning they can’t suddenly cancel when Europe’s premier club competition goes elsewhere.
This new found fear of BT and its television ambitions is also forcing Sky to cooperate with its long term rivals. Sky is building a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network in York with TalkTalk and there have been rumours of discussions with Vodafone about a mobile partnership.
But TV is Sky’s bread and butter. A new carriage deal will provide Virgin Media with all Sky Sports channels in high definition and access to the Sky Sports app on iOS and Android, while TalkTalk’s YouView customers can receive Sky Sports for £15 a month for three months as part of an introductory offer.
Sky is desperate to get as many customers as possible signed up to its channels and its latest moves are perhaps an acknowledgement that it may have reached saturation point for its own platform. Nowhere is this more evident than its Now TV service which aims to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Now TV offers the latest movies and Sky TV programmes but unlike its competitors, it can offer live sport and a new £15 a week sport pass could entice those who want some of Sky’s sporting content but don’t want to enter a lengthy contract or pay for a full month. Sport is the bedrock of Sky’s success and it is what the company will rely on to maintain its TV empire and use to try and carve significant market share in the online streaming market.
BT’s strategy for this season is more about consolidation ahead of the arrival of Champions League and the Europa League in 2015 and BT Sport will once again be free to all BT broadband customers.
Rugby’s European Champions Cup is the channel’s big new sports property, but the Portuguese league has been brought in to supplement its well-received coverage of German, Italian and French football, especially the European Football Show on Sunday nights with James Richardson.
Marketing budget has been assigned so everyone reading a newspaper, watching TV or waiting for a tube knows how great the Premier League is on BT Sport (even Mourinho says so), but the reception for its coverage last season was fairly mixed.
To remedy this, former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes has been signed as a pundit, presumably to be the channel’s answer to Sky’s Gary Neville, who has developed into the country’s best football analyst over the past three years. For a man of so few words during his career, Scholes’ recent comments about the state of the club have been picked up by a number of media outlets, something which could increase exposure for his new employer.
The BBC is not in competition with either of the two heavyweights and there are signs that its own terrestrial battle with ITV is coming to an end. ITV has lost the rights to live FA Cup action to the Beeb, while it will only show highlights of the Champions League and Europa League from 2015, leaving the channel with just England matches – although these will still be ratings winners.
The BBC will show live matches of every round, with special attention paid to the early rounds of the competition across TV, radio and online. Football Focus and the Women’s Football Show will also continue, while the flagship Match of the Day will celebrate its 50th anniversary with new pundits in the form of Rio Ferdinand and Phil Neville, joining Danny Murphy, Robbie Savage and Alan Shearer to fill the void left by the retiring Alan Hansen.
Almost a decade after the European Union ruled that the live Premier League rights could not be sold to a single bidder, there are signs that for the first time, Sky’s stranglehold on the market could be coming to an end.
Anyone with a serious interest in football is going to subscribe to Sky Sports this season, but from next year, that decision might not be so clear cut. BT has said it is in for the long run and so long as broadband subscriptions continue to rise, it will think its huge investment in sport is worth it.
What’s clear though is, there shouldn’t be any problems with finding a match to watch this season.