Premier League threatens Setanta over £20m payment

Troubled broadcaster faces loss of football rights after missing payment

Setanta Sports has just days to raise £20m or face losing the rights to its "jewel in the crown" – coverage of Premier League football next season.

The Dublin-based broadcaster was saved from administration after an American billionaire stepped in with an 11th-hour rescue plan last week, and it resumed taking subscriptions from new customers on Saturday. However, losing rights to the Premier League would be a body blow to the group's long-term prospects.

Setanta has the rights to screen 46 matches over the 2009-10 season, yet that is now in doubt after it missed a scheduled payment for £30m, paying just a third of the sum. In response, the Premier League announced yesterday that it would put Setanta's two rights packages on the block if the payment was not settled in full by the close of business on Friday.

It said: "Although the Premier League would like to provide Setanta with as much time as possible to rearrange its finances, the start of the 2009-10 season is only two months away, with the release of fixtures imminent.

"Accordingly, the Premier League has notified Setanta that, if necessary, the existing licence agreement between us will be terminated, coming into effect if Setanta does not meet certain contractual requirements of the Premier League on or before Friday."

Should the rights be put up for sale, rival BSkyB could bid on one package. ESPN, owned by Disney, is also believed to be interested.

Setanta declined to comment yesterday. One source close to the group said: "This doesn't come as a huge surprise and we fully understand this close to the new season that they have to protect themselves. However, it shouldn't cause a huge disruption to our plans."

Setanta remains in talks with the rescue investors who emerged on Friday. They are led by Len Blavatnik, a Russian-born billionaire whose Access Industries already holds a 3 per cent stake in Setanta. Mr Blavatnik is understood to have offered £20m for a 51 per cent stake in the group. Endemol, the production company responsible for Big Brother, is also thought to be interested in investing.

"The discussions with investors are continuing, and by Friday we expect the business will be in a position to meet its obligations," the Setanta source said.

Despite the tight deadline, Setanta is banking on its close ties with the new investors to secure a quick turnaround and pay off its short-term debts.

Mr Blavatnik, who is on the board of the oil venture TNK-BP, also owns Top-Up TV, a digital television service that offers Setanta to its clients. Top-Up TV's chairman, David Chance, a former executive at Sky, is also likely to be brought in to advise. "He knows the industry inside out," one media expert said.

"These guys have worked quite closely together," the Setanta source said. "They are not going into this investment blind. There is a reasonable expectation this will be done quickly."

He still cautioned: "We do need to get the refinancing over the line first."

Setanta's was hit by the loss of one Premier League package at auction earlier this year, but its future was thrown into doubt this month after it missed a routine payment to the Scottish Premier League (SPL). Two weeks on, Setanta still has not paid up.

One source close to the SPL said: "We are aware of reports of new funding, which is positive, but we will have to see how they stack up." The SPL declined to comment.

"The league has to look at this in the short term for next season but also in the longer term, and what it means. Hopefully it will become clearer over the coming days," the insider added.

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