BT IS buying broadcaster ESPN’s UK and Ireland television business from media giant Disney in a move which will bolster its challenge to BSkyB’s domination of live sports coverage.
Under the deal, the telecoms group will take on ESPN’s sports rights packages including football matches from the Scottish Premier League (SPL), the FA Cup, Uefa Europa League and German Bundesliga.
The agreement, which also includes the ESPN America channels, will see BT take over the rights from 31 July provide regulatory approval is secured. No figure was disclosed for the deal but it is understood to be in the low tens of millions of pounds.
BT said it will continue to operate at least one ESPN-branded channel as part of its BT Sport package, which will launch in the summer.
It will also acquire the right to broadcast live sports from the US including American football, college basketball and Nascar motor racing. The deal is part of BT’s push to drive subscriptions to its BT Vision pay-TV service through an enhanced sports package in the same way BSkyB has done with huge success.
BT Vision currently has about 700,000 customers, while BSkyB has more than ten million. BT has already invested heavily in sports rights, winning a share of Barclays English Premier League football rights from 2013 and buying exclusive rights to English Premiership rugby.
Marc Watson, chief executive of television for BT Retail, said: “We are delighted to have reached agreement with ESPN for the acquisition of their UK channels business and that we have been able to add some exciting new sports rights to the ones we already have.”
Watson said the SPL would be a “terrific addition” to BT’s football coverage and would enable it to offer Scottish viewers “top matches north and south of the Border”.
“We’ll be talking more about our plans soon,” he added.
ESPN and Sky share the broadcasting rights to SPL games, with each broadcaster having agreed to show 30 matches per season over the next three seasons. Under the agreement, the two broadcasters are also showing 15 Rangers games a season.
SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster said the announcement was positive for the Scottish game.
“It means that top-flight football will continue to be broadcast by Sky Sports and now BT, providing a solid financial bedrock and the best possible platform to promote the game in Scotland.”
The SPL’s existing broadcast contracts will last until at least the end of season 2016-17.
The deal will also enable BT Sport customers to see live coverage of the FA Cup for the 2013-14 season and the Uefa Europa League and German Bundesliga through to the end of the 2014-15 season. BT Sport has already agreed broadcast rights for 38 live Barclays Premier League matches in each of the next three seasons beginning August 2013, 69 live Aviva English Premiership Rugby matches for the next four seasons; and up to 800 hours per season of live women’s tennis, including the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships.
All 97 ESPN UK and Ireland staff are understood to have been offered the opportunity to transfer to BT Sport’s headquarters in the converted media centre in the Olympic park in Stratford.
Ross Hair, ESPN’s managing director in Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: “We could not be more proud of the TV channels built and nurtured by our talented team over the past four years. The value of that hard work is reflected in this deal with BT and the continuation of ESPN on television screens across the UK and Ireland.”
BT said the service provided to current ESPN subscribers will remain unchanged until after the deal is completed.
ESPN will continue to operate UK digital media businesses including ESPN.co.uk.