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BT Sport to rely on rugby in its battle with Sky

  • @iburrell

The former British Lions legend Brian O’Driscoll will spearhead a plan to convert the football masses into rugby fans as BT’s latest strategy in its struggle with Sky for sports domination in the pay TV market.

John Petter, the head of BT’s Consumer Division and the man who prised Champions League football rights from Sky, told The Independent he had identified rugby coverage as a key battlefield for sports audiences and wanted to “demystify” the game.

BT Sport will schedule games from English club rugby’s Aviva Premiership alongside Premier League matches this season in the hope of transitioning football fans to the oval-balled sport. Its coverage of Manchester United’s Premier League opening fixture with Swansea City on Saturday will be immediately followed by live World Club Rugby 7s action from Twickenham.

But Sky – which is offering its live sports free to all Sky and Virgin Media homes this weekend – will schedule eight live Rugby Union and Rugby League matches of its own, and Arsenal’s London derby with Crystal Palace.

Petter said he wanted BT rugby presenters such as O’Driscoll and former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio to reach out to potential new rugby fans. “I think there’s potential for crossover,” he said. “The manner in which we present our rugby – which is very accessible and reflects the spirit of a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously – will draw the audience. Brian O’Driscoll is extremely funny and sharp. His personality will bring people in.”

O’Driscoll said he had joined the broadcaster “because I’ve been impressed by their new and fresh approach to rugby coverage”.

BT has first picks for games involving English clubs in the European Rugby Champions Cup and will be covering Harlequins, Saracens, Bath, Leicester and Wasps in the opening round.

The moneybags communications company is putting Sky under increased pressure. Having paid £897m for live football rights to the Champions League from 2015, and secured other European football rights including Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1, it is expected to bid for Spain’s La Liga when Sky’s contract expires at the end of the current season. The challenge threatens Sky’s new dedicated European football channel which launched this week.

Sky – which retains a wide rugby portfolio - has gone on its own spending spree this year, renewing rights to 18 events from Masters and PGA golf to IPL cricket, speedway, wrestling and the next British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

BT Sport’s audience share is modest in view of what it has spent on rights but Petter claimed the company had delivered an additional 4.6m viewers who previously did not watch premium sports channels.

He hopes BT’s new “Matchday Live” mix of football and rugby scheduling on Saturdays will reduce audience churn. The “Rugby Tonight” show on Mondays will seek to bring newcomers to the sport. “It’s a more informal style. It will attempt to demystify the sport and explain what people are seeing from the point of view of people who have until recently been huge in the game.”

The potential for building rugby’s following is increased by England hosting the Rugby World Cup next year, he said. “The audience that you get [on the BBC] for a Six Nations game can be seven million and there’s an opportunity to bring some across for club rugby.”