BY JAMIE WHITEHEAD

Saturday’s announcement from BT Sport that exclusive coverage of the Champions League and Europa League had been secured sent shock waves through UK based armchair fans.

The deal, which saw the telecoms provider pay £897 million for three years (2015-18), left football fans polarised on the announcement. BT’s deal to customers, at preset, offers free access to BT Sport 1, BT Sport 2 and ESPN via the Freeview platform provided you are already a BT Broadband customer. The channels are also carried on the satellite platform at no extra cost for the upgrade. For supporters who have already subscribed to the Pay Television option, nothing needs to change, all 350 games are available in one place, at no extra cost. The present television licensing deal (which will expire at the end of the 2014/15 season) sees ITV (a free-to-air channel in the United Kingdom) have the first pick of the Tuesday games for broadcast with SKY (arguably the world’s largest Pay TV provider) picking up the rest. The Champions League final is simulcast across both outlets.

In a world of £62 tickets for Premier League games and access to SKY Sports starting at £43.50 per month, it’s hardly surprising that a number of football fans are disgruntled about the decision. The present Champions League deal sees thirteen games broadcast on free-to-air television per season (breaking down as one game broadcast live each Matchday (Tuesday) during the group stages, and two ties per-round during the knockout stages, plus the final itself). BT have insisted that each British team will be featured at least once on a free-to-air broadcast each season. Presumably, this will take place in the form of a relaxing of the encryption, meaning that BT Sport will be offered for free on the nights British teams are in action. It could be presumed that this may also be extended to include the Champions League final.

The above would only then equate to five live Champions League games a season on a free-to-air platform. These being the four English entrants (should all four progress to the group stages, coefficient dependant) and, well, Celtic. Realistically, so BT can save face, these will all be group games. One can’t think of the PR disaster should they promise a Manchester United game and hold off until the knockout stages and United not be there.

From a broadcasting point of view, it cannot be denied that SKY have revolutionised football coverage, not only in the United Kingdom, but across the globe. One only needs to look at Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Premier League, complete with Keys, Gray and several other has-beens to see the influence they’ve had. And not only in football. Rupert Murdoch’s subscription empire pioneered interactive technology, High Definition broadcasting and the foray into 3D broadcasting (which remains to be seen weather or not that will be viewed as a success). These innovations have been seen across the board on a number of different platforms. When news
programming launched in HD in 2011, the world asked why we needed to watch the news in HD. Twenty four months later, it’s seen as standard. Say what you like about them, it’s hard to argue that SKY’s coverage of the game was not a revolution. Although they did not invent talking about football, as disgraced former SKY Sports Anchor Richard Keys recently proclaimed on Twitter.

The power that SKY have held over football since it launched in 1992 (following a rebrand from BSB, British Satellite Broadcasting) is clear for all to see. The Monopolies Commission dictated that one broadcaster could not have access to all the coverage, at which point the Premier League games were divided into six packages. These were broken down into kick-off times (Sunday, 4pm being Package One and Saturday 5:15pm (as it then was) being Package Six). Presently, Package Two is the Saturday, 12:45pm kick-off. This package was won by BT Sport, allowing them access to thirty eight live Premier League games for the 2013/14 season and the subsequent two.

It’s the first instance in the Pay TV era that you can say a broadcaster other than SKY actually ‘won’ something. Since the legislation was introduced in 2001, Murdoch has seen off ITV Digital, Setanta Sports and ESPN. It’s no coincidence that all of those broadcasters had Package Six (the Saturday evening kick off). Traditionally, this is the telecast which picks up the least viewers, due to it’s close proximity to the final whistle in the 3pm kick-off and Saturday evenings often being reserved for Family Time. ITV, Setanta and ESPN picked up these games because, in a very literal sense, SKY could not have them. The amount of money required to acquire Premier League access means only a subscription based service could realistically bid for them. (As an example of how rights access is administered, the BBC have access to highlights on Match of the Day but can’t show highlights on domestic news or their global output. And despite showing a live game at 5:30 and a full ninety minute highlights show at 8:30, SKY Sports News can’t show any Premier League highlights until 10pm on a Saturday night).

Visit any prominent club based football forum or search #AMF on Twitter and it won’t be too long until you find somebody moaning about the fact that SKY ruined football. To the match-going supporter, this is a valid argument. Being a Newcastle United supporter who prides themselves on going to every game and having your away game at Southampton being moved to 8pm on a Monday night is hardly ideal. But the main issue with SKY, and again, from a broadcasting point of view, is their seeming ignorance to anything that happened prior to the Premier League’s (and their own) formation in 1992. A prime example of this being the 2011 Champions
League final of 2011. This final saw Manchester United take on Barcelona at Wembley, the ground which saw both clubs win their first European crowns (United in ’68, a victory made even more poignant as it marked the tenth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, and Barça’s 1-0 win over Italian side Sampdoria in 1992). Although both games were mentioned in passing, more emphasis was focused on United’s victories in ’99 and ’08, whilst the Barça angle was the Paris victory and the 2009 final between the same two sides in Rome. (The Champions League rebrand came into effect as of 1992/93, the Barça dream team (as they have come to be known, won the trophy in 91/92).

For all the revolutionary changes SKY made in the coverage of football. The emergence of BT Sport sees the first time they have had a genuine challenger to their crown. BT can effectively give away their Premier League coverage due to the strength of their broadband business, a market SKY have tried to tap into. The appointments of Jamie Carragher, and in particular, Gary Neville have given the viewer a genuine insight into top flight football and how it is played. The worry for SKY now is the final card may have been dealt and there’s a new gang in town. One can’t help but wonder if the final trump they have is the next technological revolution. But again, BT will be right up there with them on it.

SKY will never have a problem attracting the big names. Looking back on the pundits that have appeared on Super Sunday and Monday Night Football over the years brings back memories of Carragher, Neville, Gullit, Redknapp, Yorke, Keane, Souness and Strachan. All household names in their own right. A cacophony of football knowledge and terrible suits.

BT Sport’s arsenal includes Michael Owen, David James, Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves and former Premier League referee Mark Halsey (bought in to explain refereeing decisions to the audience during a live game). Although at this moment, their coverage of the Premier League is somewhat generic (despite that brilliant pitch thing they have). The jewell in their crown is their European coverage. With rights to Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, BT have taken a huge step in employing European football journalists to provide reaction and analysis as oppose to former players. The likes of James Horncastle, Andy Brassell and the incomparable James Richardson offer a take that a former player (who more often than not is a mate of the players he’s talking about)never could. It’s early days, and it is a huge risk, but one that looks like it’s going to pay off. It would make sense to suggest that BT should introduce this into their Premier League coverage sooner rather than later.

The keen eye will have noticed that SKY has a fear of the events it has no rights to cover. Their pushing of the transfer window during international tournaments being a prime example of this. The other being that the big Premier League games happen either directly before or after international breaks. Take note of that next time you hear Hodgson complaining about his players playing on the Sunday before a Tuesday night qualifier.

BT’s acquisition of the Champions League marks the next step in football coverage in the UK, and potentially the rest of the world. BT take their French coverage from the feed provided by Canal +, France’s SKY Sports equivalent. The production there moves even further forward having a tracked camera on the touchlines and a wired camera in certain stadiums. This will not have gone unnoticed in the BT offices and could potentially provide another future step in how football is covered in this country.

1992 is known as Year Zero for football now. 2015 looks like it could be Year Zero MKII. The world’s biggest pay tv provider no longer has the world’s biggest club competition. The revolution will be televised.

Oh…they have the Europa League, too.

Jamie Whitehead is a Broadcast Journalist for the BBC World Service and author of the forthcoming book, Tribune d’honneur: Football as a Weapon. T: @jamiewh_ 

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