Craig Fowler: BT Sport must win battle for Scottish football

BT Sport's coverage has been widely praised. Picture: SNS
BT Sport's coverage has been widely praised. Picture: SNS
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At different points this season, BT Sport and Sky Sports have each invited a journalist from a Scottish national newspaper for a behind-the-scenes look at how their live broadcasts are put together. This is no coincidence. With it being time to negotiate the SPFL TV deals once again, Scottish football’s main broadcasters have become two suitors vying for our attentions, trying to woo us with what they have to offer.

For too long it has been roles reversed, with Neil Doncaster going cap in hand looking for something, anything, to boost the revenue of our clubs. Finally we’re in a position of power, and doesn’t it just feel great.

Scottish football has struck its nadir and is on its way back up. The proof should arrive in the form of the new television deal which, if reports are to be believed, will break the previous record set by Setanta back in 2008. According to the Daily Mail, BT Sport is bidding for sole custody of Scottish football and they are willing to pay more than £31 million a season for exclusive coverage.

The leaking of this story to the press would suggest it is not where the bidding will end. Sky Sports hold the aces in the SPFL pack by holding the rights to show all four Old Firm league games a season. It is unlikely they will be willing to let go of that without a fight.

Whatever the final figure should be, it won’t be the type of money that, Celtic aside, would finally put our clubs on the map, but it is a massive step in the right direction.

The punters will have more in their coffers as well. Having both Sky Sports and BT Sport costs a fair whack each month for your average fan. Adding BT Sport to an existing sports package with Sky means an additional £22.99 per month (or £7.50 if you have BT Broadband). Virgin Media, which includes BT Sport in XL packages, offers Sky Sports for an extra £19 per month.

Then there’s BT TV itself, which only offers Sky Sports channels 1 and 2 (and 5 if you have a BT Vision box) for £22 per month. Scottish games can sometimes be shown on Sky Sports 4, so you can be paying an added £264 a year and still not see the SPFL game of the week on occasion. Even then, you’re only eligible for such a deal if you have Infinity broadband.

Whether you like it or not, the reason for the impending tussle is the return of Rangers to the top flight. The Old Firm game is the only match that’s a guaranteed draw with audiences outwith Scotland’s borders and, without it, there would be no bidding war.

Regardless, those who are sick of the constant media coverage surrounding the Glasgow giants will feel more comfortable with BT cradling Scottish football’s future. The telecommunication giants have earned praise since they first took over from ESPN in sharing the SPFL pie with Sky. They go out of their way to champion the game in this country as a whole, as evidenced by the weight they threw behind the re-branding and restructuring of the League Cup, penalty shoot-out points and all.

A short-term boost in finances is great, but having someone to market the league in all its glory, just like Sky has with the English Premier League, is really what we need.

In fairness to Sky, they provide some additional coverage which they don’t often get credit for. For instance, they produce their own Scottish football highlights show. It’s not much, but it demands resource and isn’t something provided at present by BT, who takes theirs from the world feed.

In addition, Sky offer clips and highlights, including Championship games, online and on demand for Sky customers.

This work has been encouraged by a few passionate journalists within the company, who want to see Scottish football given its fair share. It is just unfortunate that such dedication is undermined when Sky Sports News invariably puts up a graphic getting the two Dundee clubs mixed up.

Whether it’s true or not, there is a perception that Sky treat the other 40 clubs in Scottish football like an ugly friend chaperoning a date. Perhaps, deep down, BT feel the same way. But on the surface they are charming us with features, varying their coverage as best they can, and providing entertaining debate and analysis on every show. It doesn’t feel like the rest of us are a necessary evil, existing only so the Old Firm can be monetised by TV companies without playing each other 40-times a season.

They also have the best commentator, presenter and pundit within their ranks. Ian Crocker is excellent for Sky, but Derek Rae’s diction, knowledge and passion for the game cannot be topped. Host Darrell Currie is tremendously underrated. He has an inoffensive boy-next-door look to him, but do not be fooled. When it comes to the tough questions, he is not afraid to ask them, and seems to get a kick out of pushing Chris Sutton’s buttons.

Speaking of Mr Marmite, whether you loathe him or hate him, you cannot deny that he is box office. Neil McCann at Sky may be more nuanced in his analysis, but Sutton cannot be matched for pure entertainment.