THE battle for televised football viewers intensified yesterday when BT Sport announced it had won the exclusive UK live broadcast rights for top European games.
In a deal worth almost £900 million, BT will screen all 350 Uefa Champions League and Europa League matches for three years from 2015.
It is the first time a single UK broadcaster has won the exclusive live rights to all matches from the two tournaments and also the first time they will not be shown on terrestrial television, although some matches, including the finals of both competitions, will be shown free to non-subscribers.
Currently, Sky and ITV hold the rights to show Champions League matches. ITV4 has the contract for the Europa League.
Gavin Patterson, BT chief executive, said: “I am thrilled that BT Sport will be the only place where fans can enjoy all the live action from the Uefa Champions League and Uefa Europa League. Both tournaments are world class and firm favourites with many. The live rights will give a major boost to BT Sport and give people yet another reason to take our terrific service.”
Sky hit back by claiming BT had overpaid and said it would look at other ways of serving its customers, without saying expressly how it intended to do so. In a statement it said: “We bid with a clear view of what the rights are worth to us. It seems BT chose to pay far in excess of our valuation.
“There are many ways in which we can invest in our service for customers. We take a disciplined approach and there is always a level at which we will choose to focus on something else. If we thought it was worth more, we’d have paid more.
“Nothing changes until 2015 and we look forward to 18 more months of live Champions League on Sky Sports. We will now redeploy resources and continue to bring customers the best choice of TV across our offering.”
The unexpected announcement divided opinion among sports fans, with thousands turning to Twitter to offer either support for the challenger station or to complain that BT should stick to fixing much-criticised telephone connections.
BT is believed to be funding the deal partly through money raised from advertising on its three BT Sport channels which launched on 1 August.
BT has more than two million customers who take the service and the channels reach around four million homes when BT’s wholesale deal with Virgin Media is taken into account.
BT Sport is showing some Scottish and English Premier League matches and live football from the top leagues in Germany, Italy, France plus the FA Women’s Super League. It is also showing Aviva Premiership rugby union and women’s tennis. From next year it will show MotoGP.
Patterson added: “BT Sport has got off to a strong start.
We have attracted millions of customers by giving sport back to the fans, and we can assure people who want to catch all the action that European football will be far more accessible and affordable with BT.”
BT is paying £299m a season and claims it can incur the cost without changing its financial outlook.
Commenting on the award of rights, Guy-Laurent Epstein, Uefa events marketing director, said: “Uefa is delighted to welcome newcomer BT Sport to the family of Uefa Champions League rights holders. Since its launch in the summer, BT Sport has been Uefa’s partner for the Uefa Europa League and has demonstrated its ability to deliver premium sports coverage.”
The Champions League has achieved an average UK audience of around 30 million viewers. Chelsea won the tournament last year.
Aside from the battle for sports viewers, this latest deal is a further attempt to win broadband customers. BT offered its sports channels free to those who signed up for broadband as a way of clawing back customers moving to Sky.
The satellite broadcaster has, in turn, launched new services to retain subscribers.
Last month it struck a deal with Twitter to show clips from Champions League matches to help promote its new contract-free online service Now TV.
It allows viewers to pay for 24-hour access to content rather than sign up for the full service.