This week English soccer’s Premier League confirmed the sale of five of its domestic broadcast packages for the next three years, with pay-TV players Sky Sports and BT Sport staying on board in deals so far totalling UK£4.46 billion. The means that while UK TV income has leapt 70 per cent in each of the last two cycles, it will probably hold steady or dip slightly this time - with the interest coming in the performance of two new full-round packages, and any gains likely coming from overseas.
Over the past quarter of a century, the race to show the world’s most popular league on home soil has bred competition and huge amounts of TV cash but growth has not necessarily exploded with every sale.
On 20th February 1992, clubs in the First Division of the Football League formalised their plans to launch a breakaway competition by creating the Premier League.
While the new tier retains promotion from and relegation to the lower levels, its member clubs gain full control of their earning potential, sharing income almost equally among themselves but limiting their commitments to the rest of the Football League. With the TV rights market warming up, it changes the picture of British and international sport forever.
1992/93 to 1996/97: Sky Sports; UK£304 million
BSkyB transforms the face of English soccer and of the UK broadcast industry for a generation with a five-year, UK£304 million deal for exclusively live coverage of the breakaway new Premier League.
Matches included in the package are scheduled for Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. It is the first time English top-flight games have been moved behind a paywall in the UK, although the publicly funded BBC seals a deal for highlights rights for its Match of the Day programme on Saturday nights.
The negotiations for the deal become part of the legend of the Premier League’s emergence. Free-to-air commercial broadcaster ITV, then the live broadcast partner of the Football League, makes a UK£260 million offer; Amstrad and Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar, now Lord Sugar, is reputedly overheard telling Sky’s negotiators to “blow them out of the water”. Amstrad has a deal in place to manufacture Sky’s home satellite equipment.
Subscriptions for the BSkyB platform rise exponentially and Sky Sports adds new channels and other major soccer rights to a rapidly expanding portfolio.
1997/98 to 2000/01: Sky Sports; UK£670 million
After a period in which the domestic popularity of soccer has risen in the UK - helped by factors ranging from a marked improvement in safety at more family-friendly grounds, and England’s successful staging of Uefa Euro 96 - Sky renews its Premier League deal for UK£670 million over a shortened four-year period. A group led by the Daily Mirror newspaper and media company Carlton, then the owner of ITV’s London franchise, makes an unsuccessful bid.
Sky’s closer ties with English soccer are underlined by a UK£625 million bid for serial 1990s champions Manchester United in 1998, which is accepted by the club but blocked by competition authorities. A deal for a 9.9 per cent stake is eventually cleared.
2001/02 to 2003/04: Sky Sports and NTL/Premiership Plus; UK£1.1 billion
Despite an EU ruling cutting the length of the Premier League’s rights offer to its now-standardised three-year cycle, Sky renews its deal for 66 live games a season for UK£1.1 billion.
A package of 40 pay-per-view games a year is sold to NTL, which then realises it cannot honour its commitment and resells the rights back to Sky and what becomes the short-lived Premiership Plus platform.
ITV takes the highlights rights from the BBC in a UK£183 million deal before the collapse of its own ON Digital/ITV Digital pay-TV platform, which had paid UK£315 million for Football League rights.
Sky swoops in to collect those package after ITV pulls out of the contract, while the two broadcasters come together to sign a joint UK£83 million-a-year deal for Uefa Champions League soccer, which makes its debut on British pay-TV.
2004/05 to 2006/07: Sky Sports; UK£1.024 billion
Though the rising global popularity of Premier League coverage, spurred by the presence of an ever-higher calibre of overseas players and consistently strong performances in European competition, has greatly increased the value of international rights, the ITV Digital debacle and a lack of rivals for Sky sees domestic rights income level off.
Sky Sports pays UK£1.024 billion for another three years of coverage, initially sealing an exclusive three-year partnership. However, the sales process draws the attention of the European Commission, which deems it to be anti-competitive.
Sky and the Premier League both insist that each of the four individual packages sold was made available individually, and a small package of eight Saturday evening games a season is sent back out to market. This falls through, however, after no bidders are able to meet the reserve price. The commission sets new conditions to ensure more than one broadcaster is awarded live rights in future.
2007/08 to 2010/11: Sky Sports and Setanta; UK£1.706 billion
With the new regulations in place, Irish broadcaster Setanta Sports makes its UK entry by taking two of six available packages in a UK£392 million deal. Backed by Benchmark Capital, it prepares plans to roll out as an alternative to Sky Sports, with 46 live Premier League games a year.
Sky, which had been limited to a total of five packages by the European Commission, takes four for a total of 92 live games a season, including the marquee slots late on Sunday afternoons. The agreements are worth a combined UK£1.706 billion to the league.
2010/11 to 2012/13: Sky Sports and Setanta/ESPN; UK£1.782 billion
Despite the global economic downturn, Sky Sports and Setanta agree to increased commitments worth a combined UK£1.782 billion. Sky pays UK£1.623 billion for 115 games a season - an average of UK£4.7 million per game. Setanta drops from two packages to one, taking mainly Saturday evening games, in a move which hints at the broadcaster’s wider struggle.
In the event, Setanta fails to even make it to the opening game of its new deal. It enters administration in June 2009, less than five months after announcing its extension.
Disney-owned ESPN, which confirmed a failed bid in the initial tender, takes most of the company’s UK assets and slots in as a replacement for its Premier League coverage. It also picks up rights to the FA Cup knockout competition as it seeks to build a local presence.
2013/14 to 2015/16: Sky Sports and BT Sport; UK£3.018 billion
As analysts try to assess the threat to Sky of ESPN and Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Sports - today known as BeIN Sports - telecoms giant BT appears from nowhere to take two of the seven available rights packages. It is understood to have bid for all seven tranches available but makes do with two, at an annual cost of UK£246 million, as it puts the backbone of its new BT Sport offering in place.
Sky Sports lays out an annual UK£760 million for its 116 annual live games, with the combined UK£3.018 billion in the June 2012 auction representing a massive 70 per cent uplift in income for England’s elite clubs.
The deal changes the competitiveness of English teams at a stroke, consolidating their advantage in the player transfer and salary market, and sets the scene for a ‘triple-play’ battle between Sky and BT in the home phone, broadband and entertainment space.
BT Sport collects a range of high-profile rights, including top-tier club rugby union and the National Basketball Association (NBA), but its most dramatic move is an exclusive UK£897 million deal for the rights to the Uefa Champions League from 2015 to 2018.
2016/17 to 2018/19: Sky Sports and BT Sport; UK£5.136 billion
Spurred partly by the fear of an entry by handily backed BeIN Sports and the now Discovery-owned Eurosport, but mostly by competition with each other, Sky Sports and BT Sport commit a combined UK£5.136 billion for another three-year deal, with the Premier League producing another 71 per cent rise in arguably the most impressive results in its history.
Sky Sports commits the lion’s share, retaining its five packages and the premium games in a UK£4.2 billion deal - a rise of 83 per cent which values its 126 live games at UK11.07 million apiece. Amid reports that it has not aggressively pursued Sky for the top-level packages, BT Sport commits to an 18 per cent increase in spend for 42 games a year, up from 38. Elsewhere, the BBC retains the highlights rights in a record UK£204 million deal.
The huge outlay from both parties sees an apparent tactical readjustment elsewhere. In March 2017, BT Sport goes on to spend UK£1.18 billion for three more years of Champions League and Europa League rights, part of a programming strategy heavily infused with European club soccer. But it loses out elsewhere - most notably failing to break Sky’s stranglehold on English cricket, which is locked up in a landmark deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board until 2024 - and it decides to consolidate its hold on second place in the UK pay-TV marketplace.
In December 2017, as the Premier League finalises its tender for the 2019/20 to 2021/22 cycle, BT and Sky confirm a content-sharing agreement, making their premium sports and entertainment channels fully available on one another’s pay-TV platforms for the first time.