Media Forum: Is Sky taking over football?

Is its increasing dominance of the market unhealthy, Alasdair Reid asks.

It has, unfortunately, become easy to belittle Setanta. Or worse, mock it for its former delusions of grandeur and the manner in which it has arrived at its current plight.

Setanta had plenty of fans back in May 2006, when, as the plucky Irish underdog, it surprised many by snatching a couple of Premier League live packages (adding up to 46 matches a season) from under the noses of BSkyB, which had enjoyed a monopoly of live top-division football since the Premier League's inception at the start of the 1992/93 season.

How refreshing. And the newcomer made a confident start when the season got underway in August 2007, with a bold marketing campaign, including a high-profile TV commercial fronted by Des Lynam. This looked like it could develop into an interesting rivalry.

And then, having put our hands in our pockets for the £10-a-month subscription, we began watching. Those of a charitable disposition were undoubtedly prepared to suspend judgment on its presentation style, which was less than slick; and on its choice of pundits.

After all, football coverage isn't as easy as you'd think. Setanta's efforts were hardly worse than we'd come to expect from, say, Five or ITV. Things would surely improve.

They didn't. Not so as you'd notice. And Setanta's honeymoon period officially ended in September 2008, when, having won exclusive rights to England's European Championship qualifier away to Croatia, it effectively blocked terrestrial broadcasters from showing highlights.

Thus, when it was revealed last week that, in the latest round of rights negotiations, Sky had won back one of the packages Setanta had taken in 2006, it was hard to come across much sympathy for Setanta. It had failed to put its money where its mouth is (or was), some observers said - and will now get all it deserves. Which could mean declining subscription levels - not a happy situation in the current climate.

Setanta made its situation even more ridiculous by asking Ofcom to intervene on its behalf. And it can count on little support from the football fans who haunt online chatrooms day after day. Scathing reactions have been commonplace.

Surely, though, this is bad news for the advertising industry? It can't be healthy for Sky to be so strong in this area. Andy Zonfrillo, the exchange director at Mindshare, can't see a problem. He says: "You might have a case if you thought Sky hadn't been innovative in the way that the sport has been presented. But its track record is second to none. It has continued to lead the way in the way it formats the whole package."

Andy Bolden, the European media director of GlaxoSmithKline, tends to agree. He won't comment on trading issues but argues that from a purely presentational standpoint, Sky deserves to reap the rewards of its investment in football. "Sky's excellence delivers viewer engagement - and that has to be good," he argues.

The only doubt harboured by Andy Benningfield, the trading director at Maxus, concerns what Sky will now do in terms of charging extra for the additional games it now has. The last time it had these games, its charging structure was somewhat unpopular. But that, he argues, is a minor quibble: "With new delivery platforms evolving rapidly, by 2010 Sky will probably be in a better position to deliver live sports content (on other digital platforms, such as the internet) if that becomes part of the rights package, and that in turn will potentially offer advertisers a multitude of new ways to reach consumers."

Which is pretty much the way Andrew Stephens, a founding partner of Goodstuff, sees things too. He concludes: "While Premier League remains a pay-TV market, Sky's dominance simply means it offers advertisers a more efficient way of getting to a highly demanded football audience. Sky's innovative ad formats means clients get to the audience in more interesting ways, which has to be applauded."

NO - Andy Zonfrillo, exchange director, Mindshare

"There's so much football available that even if an advertiser had a totally football-based strategy, there would be plenty of opportunities to have a conversation with consumers in a football context."

NO - Andy Bolden, European media director, GlaxoSmithKline

"I believe football should be for the masses and I'm delighted it's with Sky. It has to be a good thing simply from the perspective of the increasing development of Sky's presentational expertise."

NO - Andy Benningfield, trading director, Maxus

"Sky reaches more sports subscribers than Setanta so it's a bigger potential audience, which can only be good for advertisers. Arguably, it's good for the game too - giving clubs guaranteed income for a few more years."

NO - Andrew Stephens, founding partner, Goodstuff

"Sky provides advertisers with a large, consistent and high-quality audience. The principle of competition is good, but not in pay-TV, as Setanta's deal has shown - it simply adds cost and confusion to an already cluttered television market."

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