In his inaugural column for LondonLovesBusiness, our new sports columnist muses on the BT vs Sky war
Rottweilers don’t run away from puppies.
Yet that is how John Petter, chief executive of BT Consumer, pictured the fight between his organisation and Sky for televised sports rights 18 months ago.
Sky was “a Rottweiler running away from a new born puppy,” said Petter.
Since then Petter has admitted to me he was being “mischievous”. However, with BT Sport well into its first exclusive Champions League season, and planning to show the next Ashes series to be played in Australia, it’s clear that while Rupert Murdoch’s Rottweiler remains the biggest beast in the sports broadcasting jungle, Petter’s puppy will not run for cover the moment the Rottweiler bares its fangs. (Unlike previous Sky rivals such as Setanta.)
More worrying for Sky, is that BT doesn’t require the props needed by Sky in 1992 when it sensationally ambushed ITV, the favourites, and snatched the rights to the newly formed Premier League.
Then, Sky’s victory depended on the crucial help of the BBC and the intervention of Alan Sugar, then chairman of Tottenham.
The club chairmen were excited that by voting for Murdoch’s channel, Match of the Day would return. Had ITV won, BBC would have been left with only FA Cup matches. And even then, had Sugar not bought Tottenham, Sky would still have lost as the previous Tottenham ownership was in ITV’s camp.
Sugar’s vote carried Sky over the line – just.
BT knows such alliances are not necessary as UEFA’s decision to end the sharing of Champions League by ITV and Sky shows. What matters now are how deep your pockets are.
True, the money has increased exponentially since 1992. Then Sky paid £191.5 million for a five year deal. Now deals are for three years and next season Sky and BT will pay a combined £5.136bn, BT, £960m and Sky a whooping £4.18bn to make sure it remains the top league broadcaster showing three times as many matches as BT every season.
However, where Sky still scores is in the quality of its commentators. Gary Neville is easily the pick of the ex-footballers turned commentators on television, quite outclassing BT’s Paul Scholes and Michael Owen. But even here BT seems to be making Sky panic.
Otherwise, why pay a reputed £4m for Thierry Henry? He could well prove to be television’s equivalent of Carlos Kickaball, Sugar’s famous description of a journeyman foreign player for whom clubs pay millions.
BT has also been shrewd in sharing Gary Lineker with the BBC. Lineker carries on with Match of the Day while presenting BT’s all important Champions League matches, forming an unprecedented link between a subscription channel and the national broadcaster.
For Murdoch, the only solace may be that sports broadcasting is not central to BT – unlike with his channel. And BT shareholders could decide that the money lavished on sports organisations is more of a game for executives than an investment that’s crucial to the business.
If they do then normal life with resume and the puppy will once again run away at the sight of the Rottweiler.