From the editor: Screen test

In a week that saw BT Sport splash UK£1.18 billion for three more years of Uefa Champions League soccer, Eoin Connolly wonders what the future holds for the UK pay-TV service.

From the editor: Screen test

The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. Sometimes the reverse is true.

This week Uefa completed its biggest club soccer rights deal, tying up a three-year extension with UK pay-TV service and freshly pressed eSports carrier BT Sport for the exclusive live rights to the Champions League and Europa League. For the first time, the deal cut ITV out of the picture entirely. The free-to-air commercial channel had been a Champions League broadcaster since the relaunch of the old European Champions Cup in 1992; it will lose its highlights package when the next cycle begins in 2018/19.

Much talk in the UK has centred on the latter fact, with another avenue to big-time soccer closed - or at least re-routed - for those fans without access to premium channels. Yet there are many other ways in which the deal is illustrative of how the plates have moved beneath the sports broadcasting landscape.  

It is strange to reflect now on how radical BT's entry into the UK broadcast sector seemed a few years ago. Back then, the nascent BT Sport operation appeared to have the entire financial might of its parent company at its disposal, with market leader Sky Sports painted as a rabbit in the crosshairs of an RPG.  

That approach has been rationalised since. BT Sport has faced a combination of Sky's competitive intransigence and the realities of establishing a respected output, beyond the straightforward acquisition of rights. With challenges to the set-up of the wider group - exemplified by an Italian accounting scandal that wiped 20 per cent off BT shares in January, and this week’s move to separate BT from the Openreach service that manages British broadband infrastructure - it has chosen to fall back and consolidate behind its more familiar rival. 

“We don’t need to be number one in the sports market, but we do need to be a viable number two,” said BT chief executive Gavin Patterson, speaking to the Enders Analysis conference in London at the start of the month.

BT apparently took a deliberate decision to build from its modest set of Premier League packages, rather than entering into an all-out bidding war, and has sought to outflank Sky away from soccer rights. Evidence of the latter came when it picked up a five-year deal with Cricket Australia, ensuring that it will be the UK home of this year’s Ashes series and end a long unbroken run of England cricket matches on Sky Sports.

But the evidence of this week would indicate that Uefa club soccer is different. An uplift of a third on the UK£897 million BT Sport spent back in November 2013, with few reports of any meaningful competition, the new deal is a statement of just how intrinsic continental games have become to the channel’s identity. From a brand and editorial perspective, Champions League and Europa League coverage dovetails neatly with matches from major European leagues to create a genuine point of difference and strength. 

Understandably, fewer fans have tuned into BT Sport’s subscription channels than watched on ITV - or indeed on Sky, which had a much bigger installed user base when it showed Champions League games until a few years ago. What has been of greater concern to Uefa is how games have fared on the free-to-air BT Showcase, which is posting audiences in the low hundreds of thousands. 

With that in mind, BT has cut that channel out of the picture and will try instead to assuage the fears of Uefa - and sponsors like Heineken - by doubling down on its commitment to generating greater exposure through digital platforms. Both tournaments’ finals will be shown for free on digital and social platforms after 1.8 million people watched the 2016 Champions League final on YouTube in the UK. Highlights, magazine shows and near-live clips will appear through those means, too. 

That should in theory provide a wealth of marketing data through which to target potential new subscribers, but it also plays to a key perceptual point. Back in 2012, when the BT Sport project first came to light, its purpose was to grab a share of an emerging ‘triple-play’ audience, trying to deliver an enticing, high-quality package across broadband, phone and TV. 

But this is now the age of OTT and single subscriptions, where services like Netflix and Spotify offer breadth and value and consumers are eschewing high-cost bundles in ever larger numbers. Speculation persists that the next entrant into the premium sports rights space will be a standalone video entertainment provider - perhaps Amazon, which has been tooling up for some time now - looking for a point of difference to help it vault clear of the competition. Where BT’s resources added a new dimension to the market, now the Silicon Valley cartel threatens to transform it altogether. 

BT Sport - if only by virtue of having created a linear channel - could already look like the old guard. That’s where shifting so much of its focus to a digital audience could emphasise its potential as an OTT offering in its own right, decoupling it from major pay-TV platforms. Its mobile app is highly developed, with features like real-time highlights catch-up allowing for an experience that goes beyond that on the big screen. BT will hope its takeover of mobile provider EE, and the content partnerships that have resulted, will make that the primary point of contact for many, many more viewers. 

Of course, BT Sport could yet decide to seek a free-to-air partner for a sub-licensing deal, delaying the break with linear convention a little longer. Either way, much could be revealed not just about the prospects of a UK broadcaster, but also about the future of viewer behaviour.