After Rupert Murdoch’s investment, the Premier League would never be the same again. Sky had transformed the way football was consumed in the UK and had developed a monopoly of sports rights that blew the competition out of the water. In the 2004-07 set of rights, Sky had 138 Premier League games each season. This was about to change however as the European Commission had threatened legal action if the rights weren’t sold to at least two different broadcasters.
So, starting from the 2007/08 season. Sky had to surrender 42 matches to a rival broadcaster. The knock to Murdoch’s empire was from a small Irish group called Setanta who paid £392 million for the privilege. The network started life out by showing the Republic of Ireland Vs Holland game during the 1990 World Cup in Ealing’s Top Hat club after BBC and ITV refused to in the UK.
It’s founders, Michael O’Rourke and Leonard Ryan slowly grew the business over the next Fourteen years and grew a core audience after acquiring rights for Irish sports such as Gaelic Football and Hurling outside of Ireland.
Setanta then made their first main move into football by outbidding BBC Scotland for rights to broadcast 38 SPL matches for four seasons in 2004 worth £35 million. The deal was successful for both parties as it gave Setanta more growth and Scottish clubs got more revenue out of it as a result.
Then two years later, Setanta went for the Premier League rights and fought off competition from Channel 4 and NTL to finally put an end to a market that had been dominated by Sky since the league was formed. Setanta now had £400 million from private equity firm Doughty Hanson and venture capital outfit Balderton Capital that had made deals like this one possible. An outsider that had played a small part in the landscape of sports rights in the UK had now turned into a genuine threat and competitor.
Setanta were going from strength to strength and had also stolen FA Cup football from Sky which had been a staple of the channel’s lineup right from the early 90s. If Setanta was to break the stronghold that Sky had been unchallenged for, they needed to take key rights off them that would affect the market share instead of just feeding off scraps that audiences didn’t want.
ITV Digital’s collapse a few years prior was an example of second rate competitions such as the League Cup and Division One not being enough to compete. Premier League, SPL, FA Cup, England friendlies and away qualifiers (which had been bought for £145 million) was a big deal.
After months of speculation, the first Premier League game live in the UK that wasn’t on Sky had happened. Aston Villa hosted Liverpool at Villa Park and a late Steven Gerrard free-kick won the game in the last five minutes. This was a solid start for Setanta. Jon Champion took commentary duties with orphan of the ITV Sport Channel, Angus Scott anchoring from the studio.
Everything seemed like it was going to plan. The channel’s output looked professional as a lot of ex BBC and ITV employees had made the switch to avoid any embarrassing faults. Pundits were different to other channels as Setanta went for players that had recently retired that provided a fresh outlook on things instead of some of the out of touch ones that dominated the airwaves. Now staples of the international pundit merry-go-round express, Tim Sherwood and Steve McManaman were given their first main pundit roles on the channel.
Sky were also getting a bit nervous and were taking their first main rival very seriously. They scheduled their Football League coverage at the exact same time as Setanta’s Premier League ties and were losing customers on cable because Virgin were offering Setanta free to all of its subscribers. Sky and Virgin had a fallout earlier on in the year over how much it cost for Virgin to have Sky’s channels on its service and so removed every Sky channel apart from Sky Sports.
This fallout also then lead to the set-up of a direct rival to Sky Sports News called Setanta Sports News. After Sky Sports News was taken off Virgin with its slot on the service being renamed “OLD SKY SPORTS SNOOZE”, customers complained and as a result Setanta set up a rather poor alternative that was an embarrassment. In a desperate attempt to do things differently from the well-tested formula over at Sky, Setanta just decided to completely ignore certain things to ‘be different’.
Take the tragic death of Phil O’Donnell, who passed away of a cardiac arrest during an SPL game between Motherwell and Dundee United. Setanta who had exclusive rights to this competition just ignored the story and ran with a pre-recorded highlights sequence instead. Meanwhile, BBC News 24 and Sky both covered the story in-depth despite not having the coverage that Setanta did.
This combined with a colour scheme that made your eyes hurt after five minutes and two really (really) annoying rolling ticker bars at different speeds along the bottom of the screen made the service uncomparable to Sky’s sleek and reliable service over on 405.
When Sky first launched, it also looked a bit tacky and basic but because they had no competition and endless money, they could afford to have some teething problems. Setanta couldn’t do this as they were entering an already competitive market and needed to be two or three times better than what Sky were offering to attract new customers on Sky Digital.
This also added in with the fact that customers that were subscribed to Sky Sports on Sky Digital already had a sports news channel. There was no need for another one that offered the same type of service but worse than what customers already had.
It would be unfair to suggest that all of Setanta’s coverage was this poor as it wasn’t. Their football coverage was enjoyable. Angus Scott was a lot easier to listen to than Richard Keys who just assaulted his viewer’s senses every few minutes with a new superlative to describe a match that for the most part would be forgotten about within a couple of weeks.
Another success came in the form of their Conference coverage. This gave Setanta a platform to try out new ideas such as half-time interviews with managers and cameras within each dressing room. This was the first time that anyone had tried features like this and although some cynics may have called it a bit gimmicky, it was impressive and innovative.
A game a week on the channel with some big sides in the league at the time such as Luton and Cambridge ended up working brilliantly for both parties. For Setanta, it was a bargain at £3 million per season and brought in big viewing figures for the channel and for the Conference, the coverage raised the profile of their league and as a result key players were sold for a lot of money for the fifth tier of English football. Steve Morisson was sold to Milwall from Stevenage for £250,000. Would that have happened if it wasn’t for the extensive coverage of the league?
A Conference reception at the House of Lords thanked Setanta for ‘bringing new light to TV for the football-supporting public’.
With everything on the outside looking smooth it looked like Sky could’ve potentially had some firm competition for their sports monopoly. The England away qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup was giving Setanta more subscribers as well as it was the only place to watch the matches as up until England’s fourth game of qualifying against Croatia, there was no highlights package in place with ITV so to watch the game you had to be a Setanta subscriber.
This gave the impression of Setanta being greedy but in reality, Sky who had the previous contract didn’t sign a contract with a free to air channel to show highlights but because Sky had more subscribers, it wasn’t a problem for most people as they already had the channel.
Customers were still annoyed however as they couldn’t watch their country play. There was also more frustration from those that were subscribed to the service and wanted to leave as it was made very difficult to leave the new service.
Setanta were looking to expand into other sports in the summer of 2008 to attract those that weren’t interested in football. Indian Premier League cricket and PGA Tour golf were added to the channel alongside Guinness Premiership rugby later in the year.
This was a disaster. IPL matches were often shown during afternoons in the week which meant the viewing figures were poor. Sky already had a stronghold on rugby and also shared the rights for the only competition that Setanta had the rights for so there was no need for fans to have both channels. Golf also had a similar fate as Sky still had the US Open and Ryder Cup.
This was a costly mistake and soon after signing these contracts, the next round of Premier League bidding had came around for 2010-13.
Setanta only offered £159 million compared to the £392 million it had paid for the previous deal. As a result, Sky were given one of their packages and Setanta were only left with 23 matches a season. The channel was struggling.
Investors were beginning to get cold feet as they weren’t getting a return on what they had put into the business and unlike Sky who had struggled at the start but were able to continue due to Murdoch, there was no one willing to invest at the peak of the 2008 recession. Setanta stumbled onto the end of the 2008/09 season but that would be the last season that the channel would exist in the UK.
Payments were due from the SPL and Premier League and Setanta couldn’t pay them. The SPL had to end up paying £3 million to cover a bill that they never got. The Premier League gave Setanta a deadline to pay them £10 million which they missed and therefore lost the rights to their main attraction. Conspiracy theorists claim that the Premier League was biased towards Sky as it made them the force it still is today and if it was Sky in danger they would have given them a longer deadline.
A late rescue bid from American billionaire Leonard Blavatnik fell through and Setanta’s channels went off-air on 23 June 2009. More than 200 jobs were lost and most of the rights were sold off to ESPN.
However, there was no large damage to clubs that were owed money as unlike the ITV Sport Channel, Setanta had paid most of its contracts. Setanta had paid the second year of its contract with the Conference and didn’t owe them any money. The £3 million that the SPL had to pay was unfortunate but on the other hand, the SPL profited £23 million for 2008.
The clubs that did fold in Scotland were rather down to unsustainable investment from rich owners instead of Setanta’s money.
The tragedy was that on the football front, Setanta’s coverage was good and gave Sky a good run for their money but it was decisions to expand too quickly on sports that they were never going to get a strong percentage of the market share on that cost them.
The Setanta brand still lives on today in Eurasia after Discovery purchased the Asian version of the channel. All other international versions (including Ireland) got bought by various different media organizations such BeIN and Fox.
Founder Michael O’Rourke set up Premier Sports in 2009 which currently holds LaLiga rights in the UK alongside Serie A.