BSkyB's attempt to position itself as the television home of rugby union appeared to have been kicked into touch yesterday as BT Vision poached the rights to cover the flagship Aviva Premiership.
In an audacious deal designed to capitalise on England's staging of the Rugby World Cup in 2015, BT Vision is spending £152m to broadcast up to 69 live matches a season. The exclusive four-year deal starts in 2013-2014. The development comes only three months after BT's bold incursion into the world of Premier League football, where it has acquired 38 live games a year for three years from August 2013.
The two deals represent a serious challenge to BSkyB's business strategy, which is strongly linked to the subscriptions the satellite broadcaster sells on the basis of its previously unrivalled sports coverage.
BT's purchase of one of the Premier League football packages is thought to have forced BSkyB to increase its bids for the rest of the rights to defend its position, resulting in the Premier League landing a £3bn bonanza, up 71% on its previous deal. Now Sky, which began its live coverage of Premiership rugby back in 1994, is under pressure in another of its key sports. The BT deal was described as "a game-changing agreement" by Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premiership Rugby.
BT Vision also has the rights to show European games played by Premiership rugby clubs from the 2014-2015 season for three years. The package also includes the JP Morgan Asset Management Sevens for four seasons from 2013-2014.
BT Vision's big land grab of sporting rights has been overseen by its chief executive Marc Watson who said he was "delighted" with his latest coup. "Rugby union is entering a thrilling phase with the World Cup being staged here in 2015 and rugby returning to the Olympics in 2016," he said. "BT is serious about sport and this deal means we will be offering the very best rugby action alongside some of the most thrilling matches from the Premier League."
BT Vision will screen its rugby and football across a variety of platforms – including mobile devices, online and on cable and satellite TV. Mr McCafferty said the company's position "at the cutting edge of technology" played a part in Premiership Rugby's choice of broadcasting partner. BT Vision has 700,000 subscribers to its television service. In June, it announced plans to set up a devoted football channel to screen its Premier League games.
Sport is central to BSkyB's DNA – the Premier League was launched in 1992, only two years after the satellite broadcast company was founded. Twenty years later, its position is now under threat as never before.
BSkyB's rugby coverage from 2014 will be based on the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup, both European competitions. ITV Sport has the rights to cover the rugby World Cup in 2015 and shows highlights of the Aviva Premiership and the European cup competitions. The BBC still covers the Six Nations international championship.
The BT strategy shows not only the power of sports in offering brand-defining content to media companies but also the attractiveness to rights-holding governing bodies of gaining profile across digital media.
Andrea Radrizzani, group CEO of media sports rights specialists MP & Silva, said: "BT represents a modern multi-platform to offer top sports content and their new deal is yet another demonstration of how fans will increasingly be watching sport through new digital media."