Sky retains Premiership title after £1.7bn TV rights auction

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The Independent Online

But new entrant Setanta, an Irish pay-TV group, managed to pick up two of the six packages on offer.

The outcome was viewed with delight and relief at the satellite group Sky, after it saw off an aggressive challenge from the cable operator NTL, where Sir Richard Branson is the largest shareholder.

City analysts and Sky investors will also welcome the result, which will see the company continue to dominate televised football until the end of this decade.

Setanta does not see itself as a direct rival to Sky and it will make its matches available - for an extra subscription - to Sky customers. The Irish broadcaster fended off bids from rival parties thought to include Disney's ESPN and Channel 4.

Trevor East, Setanta's director of sports, said: "We're well known in Ireland and Scotland but we're a mystery in England at the moment. This will put us on the map in the UK."

The two really negative results for Sky would have been for NTL to pick up packages or for any package to go to a free-to-air broadcaster.

There had been suggestions that, if it had won, NTL may have withheld its games from Sky customers - under the regulations Sky has to make its matches available to cable groups. And Sky has kept live football as the exclusive domain of pay-television - games appearing on a free-to-air channel could have led some Sky customers to dispense with their subscriptions.

The fierce competition for the Premiership, to cover the three years from the start of the 2007-08 season, has meant that the cost of the rights has soared. The last time the Premiership auctioned the games to broadcasters, for the three years from 2004, there were few rivals to Sky and it took all the live games at a cost of £1.024bn for 138 games per season (£2.5m per game).

This time, Sky shelled out £1.314bn for 92 games per season (£4.8m per game), while Setanta paid a further £392m for 46 matches (£2.8m per match).

Last week Sky picked up three of the six packages on offer - each containing 23 games - but the other three went to a second round of bidding, the result of which was announced by the Premier League yesterday.

Crucially, the second round involved Package A, which gives its owner the first pick of matches to be broadcast at the most attractive time slot, 4pm on a Sunday. Sky added Package A yesterday to the three parcels of games it already had from last week.

The Premier League has yet to auction the broadcast rights for its matches internationally or highlights packages. It raised £1.6bn overall in 2003 and is well on track to rake in well over £2bn this time.

The league has yet to auction the broadcast rights for UK Premier League games internationally or highlights packages.