Media Forum: Can ESPN compete with Sky?

Will the US broadcaster succeed where Setanta failed, Alasdair Reid asks.

So, farewell then, Setanta; but a big hello to ESPN. Last week, the US broadcaster stepped in to pay £90 million for the two packages of English Premier League live matches made available by the collapse of Setanta in the UK.

Game on once more. It is, of course, sad to see Setanta fail - and its tilt against the UK's dominant pay-TV broadcaster, BSkyB, was brave, if not exactly (not always, at any rate) clever.

Its opportunity came thanks to a European Commission ruling in 2005, which decreed that the Premier League practice of selling all of its live match rights to one broadcaster in the UK was "anti-competitive".

The start of the 2007-08 season saw the introduction of a new set of packages, with Sky gaining the best of the action, notably the plum Sunday afternoon games; while Setanta picked up packages of games in the less appealing Saturday and Monday evening slots.

To break even, its revamped UK flagship channel had to attract 1.9 million subscribers and it seemed unlikely that it could do this with 46 live Premier League games alone - so it had to go looking for other decent (or half decent) rights in other sports too. Such as PGA Tour golf.

It was always going to be an uphill slog to attract punters and, when the plug was pulled, Setanta was well short of its target, on 1.2 million subscriptions. No real surprise. Because - and here's the absurdity at the heart of this sorry episode - more competition in the market meant that consumers were being asked to pay more to get all the live Premier League football they got before, in the simpler days of a Sky monopoly.

So the dice were loaded. That may change, not least thanks to last week's Ofcom proposals that could compel Sky (though Sky is contesting this fiercely) to reduce the prices it charges for premium content such as sports. What's more, ESPN is very much a worthy competitor for Sky. It is, after all, a subsidiary of the mighty Walt Disney Company, one of the biggest media corporations in the world.

On the other hand, it's not exactly renowned for its coverage of English "soccer". Bernard Balderston, a Newcastle United season ticket holder (still, despite recent relegation misery) and the associate director, media, at Procter & Gamble, says that's there's now pressure on ESPN to bring in attractive sports other than football.

He explains: "Next season, ESPN will have two packages of Premier League games. The season after that, though, it will be down to one package of 23 games. It will be interesting now to see ESPN's business model - especially as sports rights are not getting any cheaper."

Andrew Stephens, a partner at Goodstuff Communications (and a Spurs fan), tends to agree. ESPN, he says, has the resources to take on Sky - but he doubts that it will happen. He says: "Think of the potential if ESPN really went for it and took on Sky head on. It could add a bit of American razzmatazz to the games and have a bit of fun with it - make it feel very different to the uber-serious tone of Sky and make football a real family event again."

He believes, though, that ESPN will have very modest expectations - and will, in effect, become Sky's "virtual partner in crime".

Chris Hayward, an Everton supporter and the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, says it will be extremely tough to take on Sky, which has entrenched its position over almost two decades. "It has always been astute in its valuations of the true long-term worth of sporting rights and has a significant percentage of rights across a range of sports, not just football," he says.

But Gary Birtles, the chief executive of Initiative, and another Spurs fan, doesn't see it that way. He says: "Disney has very deep pockets and it isn't under the pressure to succeed instantly, as Setanta was. It already has (a substantial inventory of sporting rights) and it's obviously in this for the long game. It's not going to fall over. It has the resources to achieve what it wants to achieve in this market."

MAYBE - Bernard Balderston, associate director, Procter & Gamble

"The majority of its potential subscribers will have to come from Sky Sports subscribers. There's a limit to how much extra the consumer is prepared to pay for what may be a limited set of events."

NO - Andrew Stephens, partner, Goodstuff Communications

"Could ESPN make a better effort (than Setanta) of challenging Sky? Absolutely. Is it going to? Absolutely not. It will work with Sky - and the consumer will lose out once again."

MAYBE - Chris Hayward, head of investment, ZenithOptimedia

"ESPN has substantial resources and it is a sports broadcaster with a track record - but, I have to say, this is a tough old market. I'm not sure how realistic it is for anyone to be a real competitor to Sky."

YES - Gary Birtles, chief executive, Initiative

"ESPN is backed by Disney and Disney has very deep pockets. Setanta was very heavily leveraged and needed to pick up as much in the way of sporting rights as it could in a very short time - and it had to succeed quickly or it was dead. Disney can play a long game."

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