London Evening Standard
As the rivalry between the TV companies slugging it out for sports rights hotted up, BT’s John Petter described Sky as “a rottweiler running away from a new-born puppy”.
A year on, I am meeting Petter and with BT Sport having lost its puppy fat, Sky has more reason to be wary.
In February, BT Sport retained its slice of the Premier League and forced Sky to pay even more to remain the main rightsholder for the three-year deal which kicks off with the 2016-17 season.
Petter, chief executive of BT’s consumer division, oversaw the £960million deal for 42 matches a season with more than half in the attractive Saturday tea-time slot. BT will pay 17 per cent more than now but Sky’s bill has risen by 70 per cent, to £4.18billion, so it can show 126 matches a campaign.
And in a coup for BT Sport, next season sees the start of its exclusive coverage of the Champions League, having wrested it from Sky and ITV.
So is the Sky rottweiler now in full retreat? With a smile Petter says: “That was a slightly mischievous thing to have said but we have made an impact.”
Then, to demonstrate the bite of the BT dog, he says: “What we set out to do was give sport back to the people because, relative to other markets, the take up of premium sports in the UK has been low. Around half the five million households that view BT Sport did not watch any premium sport before our entry into the market in 2013. Our proportion of viewers under 25 is noticeably higher than for either Sky Sports or Eurosport. We are now the biggest sports channel in the nation’s pubs and clubs, which were previously being choked by the high prices demanded by Sky.”
The barbs directed at Sky could not be more pointed. The price for the Sky Sports package has risen from less than £3 a month in 1992, when the channel secured the first Premier League TV deal, to £46 a month.
Since its launch in August 2013 BT Sport has been free for its broadband customers while other viewers pay £13.50 a month. However, the arrival of the Champions League and Europa League, which is costing the company £897m over three years, means BT Sport will no longer be free.
Petter says: “It will be a very reasonable price. And some games will be free as well. There’ll be a free-to-air version of BT Sport.”
For Petter, this constitutes a very sharp distinction with Sky. “Sports that go exclusively pay-TV are not good for the long-term health of any sport because you narrow the base over time. We can bring something here through a model that doesn’t depend on such high subscription fees, that gives the sport access to a very large viewership through free-to-air. This, combined with a low pay threshold, is potentially a good model to adopt for sustainability in the long term.”
He points to this season’s showing of the FA Cup in partnership with the BBC. “The viewership for the Cup is up about 35 per cent this year, some on the BBC and some on BT Sport.”
Petter says the arrival of the Champions League will give BT what broadcasters love — a great narrative. “If you put together the variety of rights that we have: the FA Cup, the Champions League, the Europa League and the Premier League, you will have a very large proportion of the games featuring Premier League clubs. That will help us tell the whole story for next season.”
However, Sky will still have the bulk of top-flight matches in the next deal including the premium Sunday afternoon slot and the new Friday night package. Surely it also has the better pundits? Critics remain convinced Gary Neville on Sky outshines his Manchester United team-mate Paul Scholes on BT.
“He’s doing really brilliant actually,” says Petter in a strong defence of Scholes, a Standard columnist. “People were going to criticise first off. What we’ve seen is that the criticism has dramatically tailed off and we’re seeing more and more positive comments about all of our pundits. We study all of the comments we get really carefully and there are teams that are trying to work with ‘the talent’ to improve, take lessons and get better. And they’ve done that very successfully over the past couple of years.”
Despite BT’s satisfaction with its pundits, the company is still looking to add to its team.
When I ask whether Gary Lineker will be poached to front the Champions League coverage, Petter says: “There’s been speculation on that. I can’t comment on that today, I’m sorry. I can’t even give you a hint. There’ll be some new talent. The Champions League is an event, the event, and we will want to do it justice, absolutely. Some of that is through the presenters.”
Read that as Lineker is moving.
Also in the pipeline are technological changes in BT’s coverage, an area where Petter admits his company could have done better.
“In the first stage of BT Sport, we haven’t really used the full scope of our technology. You’ll see us doing that more in terms of interactivity and picture quality. We’ll be using our technology to make the Champions League a better viewing experience.”
Chelsea will be leading England’s push for Champions League success next season, providing another link to BT as Jose Mourinho is an ambassador for the company.
“We were very lucky to have him,” says Petter. “We have worked with Jose for a while and we find that he’s very inspiring to work with.”
But is Chelsea’s manager not arrogant? “We don’t find him so,” says Petter. “He’s extremely intelligent and has strong views on things but the whole team love working with him.”
BT Sport has a 10-year lease on its studio at the Olympic Park and Petter says the company is “here to stay”.
And the Sky rottweiler had better keep watching for, as Petter, says: “There’s more pressure on the incumbent than there is on the underdog.”