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Business News

BT boss aims to score with football

Ian Livingston has his eye on ESPN's live rights as he pushes the telecoms giant into the world of pay-TV and takes on arch-rival Sky, reports Gideon Spanier

BT chief executive Ian Livingston has a masterplan to turn Britain's biggest telecom firm into a media company. He has entered the shiny world of premium pay-TV, buying up exclusive sports rights including English Premier League football, in the hope that this will help BT sell less-glamorous utilities such as broadband and home phone in a single package of services to consumers.

Mr Livingston's bet on becoming a pay-TV broadcaster only became clear last June when he unexpectedly bid against BSkyB and snapped up the live rights to 38 Premiership football games a season for the next three years – at an eye-watering price of £738m.

But a game of Premiership football a week, even if it includes some of the best matches such as Manchester United v Chelsea, won't be enough to fill a sports channel that can compete against Sky – let alone the two channels that BT has promised. After all, BSkyB remains the dominant player, with 116 live games.

So Mr Livingston, a non-executive director of Celtic football club, needs to buy up more live programming, before the launch of BT's sports channel this summer. He has been busy in recent months, signing up Clare Balding and Jake Humphrey as presenters and acquiring rights to Premiership rugby and women's tennis.

But industry sources say his outlay, thought to be close to £1bn, is still not enough to create a compelling sports broadcaster. Hence the reports this week that BT is looking to get its chequebook out again to buy up some of the UK football rights belonging to Disney's ESPN sports channel. These are said to include the German and Belgian leagues and the English FA Cup.

The speculation is that the rights are up for grabs because ESPN could be ready to reduce its UK presence, after the bruising experience of competing with mighty Sky. The broadcaster bought the live rights to 23 Premier League football games in 2009 but failed to gain serious traction as Sky had the lion's share. ESPN's retreat became apparent when it was out-bid by BT last summer.

ESPN won't comment about the suggestion it might quit the UK pay-TV market or whether it plans to off-load its remaining rights to BT or another rival, such as BSkyB, which could also be interested.

An ESPN spokesman said: "We have been saying for some time that we are exploring a range of potential options for our business. We are not going to discuss specifics."

There is no doubt that Mr Livingston is taking a gamble with his shareholders' money by investing in pay-TV sport. With £19bn a year in turnover and £2.4bn a year in profit, BT can afford to make a big investment. But Mr Livingston has had to admit there will be a £100m annual hit to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation operating profits next year and warned it will take time to turn a profit.

There is a logic to his strategy: BT's revenues have been falling and offering consumers access to premium channels on its own pay-TV platform, BT Vision, has had limited success. Barely 700,000 customers have signed up since 2006 – compared to Sky, with over 10 million TV subscribers.

So turning BT into a broadcaster with its own branded channels and exclusive content, rather than just offering other companies' channels, can differentiate the telecoms giant and make it stand out – or so Mr Livingston hopes.

The problem for BT is that football may no longer be enough to build a new force in pay-TV broadcasting. Look at Sky, which has diversified, using its £7bn-a-year income to expand into arts, drama and entertainment, while keeping sports fans happy with new content such as Formula 1 motor racing. BT has only made modest efforts so far to buy up movie rights.

Analysts at Espirito Santo investment bank say BT's pay-TV sport strategy looks "uncertain" until it gives more details. Viewers – and shareholders – will probably have to wait until May to hear how much BT plans to charge for its channels on a monthly basis and for pay-as-you-go video on demand via the web and mobile.

Espirito Santo has warned that the plan to make BT Vision available on YouView, the new internet-enabled set-top box for Freeview homes, has faced delays.

The reason BT shareholders have been willing to back Mr Livingston is that he has recognised that TV is converging with broadband and telecoms. Increasingly, customers will be willing to pay a premium to a trusted gatekeeper who can provide compelling content and seamless connectivity.

But, like top-flight football, not everyone can be a winner.

Mr Livingston, who saw Celtic's arch-rivals, Rangers, go into administration, needs no reminder that the stakes are high.