Barney Francis interview: Sky Sports spices up football service to keep BT Sport at bay
Managing director tells Ian Burrell he is driven by competition and is delighted by how new season will look on his Sky Sports channels
It will be the biggest challenge of Jamie Redknapp's broadcasting career: some 200 football fans packed around him in a brand-new television studio as he tries to question Premier League managers around the country on why they have just won, lost or drawn. What could possibly go wrong?
The former Liverpool midfielder has been given a pivotal role by Sky Sports managing director, Barney Francis, as the satellite broadcaster faces its most competitive challenge during its 22 years on air.
Redknapp will work from Sky's west London headquarters, where the vast Studio Four has been adorned with a decorative white spiral staircase and five cinema-sized screens. His brief is to turn Saturday tea-time into a football television "event" and steal the energy from BT Sport as it makes its Premier League debut this season. The strategy seems focused on marginalising the 12.45pm lunch-time kick-off slot that BT bought for around £1 billion. BT Sport's three channels launch on Thursday, broadcasting from the Olympic Park in London.
Sky's Saturday Night Football will come on air at 5pm, with Redknapp taking the baton from Jeff Stelling and the Soccer Saturday team, and exploiting the fact that the broadcaster has cameras at all the Premier League 3pm kick-offs by going pitchside at the final whistles for post-match interviews on the big stories.
The fans in the studio will have had the chance to watch all these games on Sky's live feeds and – though they will have no access to alcohol – they are expected to bring extra atmosphere to a show that Redknapp will host with Sky presenter David Jones, teeing up the station's 5.30pm live game. "I wouldn't anticipate them being raucous but I want them to be the energy in the room," says Francis of the live crowd. "If there's something funny in an interview I would expect the studio audience to pick up on that."
He has been working on his battle-plan since June last year, when BT shocked the sports world by outbidding ESPN and contributing to a £3.018bn television rights bonanza to the Premier League. Smooth and confident, he does a good job in not appearing rattled by the new threat. "We have always had competition – we thrive on it. Competition drives us on and we can't wait to give our customers the greatest season they've ever had."
Some might say a gloriously successful British summer of sport has exposed football (Sky's core business) as an overhyped circus, where players misbehave and national teams disappoint. Francis answers by claiming that the Premier League is on the verge of a new epoch. "There are three new managers in the top three clubs, it's the start of a new era – post-Ferguson," he says. "The first 22 years of Sky Sports coincided with Alex Ferguson's really successful years at Man United and now it's almost 'start again'."
And then, without actually mentioning BT, he illustrates how he thinks Sky will dominate the Premier League's opening weekend on 17-19 August. Manchester United's visit to Swansea will be David Moyes's first game in charge of United – and the focus of Redknapp's introduction to Saturday Night Football. On Sunday at 4pm, Sky cameras will be at Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho's return to Chelsea as they play Hull, which Francis predicts will be "what the Sunday papers will be all about when we open them at breakfast". Then on Monday, pundit Gary Neville (alongside new Sky signing Jamie Carragher) will focus on Manuel Pellegrini's debut as manager of Manchester City at home to Newcastle. "That's the three new regimes on the first weekend which is a really strong story for us," says Francis.
For all this bravado, Sky has felt the need to use David Beckham as the face of its advertising. The satellite broadcaster's News Corp ally The Sun interpreted this as a "Bring it on!" message to BT. Tomorrow, Sky Sports News is staging a "92 Live" stunt, with cameras at every English professional club. Officially, it is timed for the day before Friday's opening of the Football League season – but it's an obvious attempt to spike BT Sport's launch. Clearly this well-funded rival is being taken very seriously.
Marc Watson, head of BT's television division, says he is happy with 500,000 "and counting" early subscribers and promises to be around for much longer than Setanta and ESPN, Sky's previous rivals. "Others will try to persuade you to look at this on a short-term basis for their own purposes but we take a long-term view. This is the new normal for BT, it's one of our core products."
Francis, 39, is wily like a good spin bowler. During his television producer days he was the architect of Sky's cricket coverage, building its presenting line-up of former England captains and introducing technological gadgetry – such as Hawk-Eye tracking and Hot Spot thermal imaging – since adopted by the game's authorities. He is enjoying England's early success in the latest Ashes series, especially after Sky was allowed to take cameras into the exclusive Long Room at Lord's. "We said we are not going to be intrusive, we are not going to take the mickey, we just want to show these special moments."
He claims not to be frustrated that Team Sky's Tour de France triumphs have been covered on ITV4. City centre Sky Ride events show the company has a deeper commitment to getting people on two wheels, he says. "It's not simply about having a Sky logo on the winning team it's about getting this nation out there and engaged in sport."
Sky has found itself dragged into the current sexism in sport debate, with comments surfacing from an old Gabby Logan interview in which she referred to the broadcaster's female presenters wearing "leotards" and being "window dressing". Francis looks up at a screen showing presenter Kirsty Gallacher, then references Formula One presenter Natalie Pinkham and golf specialist Sarah Stirk. "We have a lot of excellent female broadcasters here who are absolutely sports nuts and we wouldn't have them here if they weren't," he says, adding that Sky has featured women's football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf and netball this year.
Gadgetry is important to Sky. Unlike the BBC, which is backing away from 3D, Francis believes there is still an appetite for the technology – especially if it can be viewed glasses-free. He is excited by the prospect of Hawk-Eye being used for goal-line decisions this season and Redknapp and Carragher have been given "touch screens" at home for pre-season training. Improving the Sky Go mobile app has reaped dividends in a warm summer, says Francis. "That technology has enabled people to be much freer even within the boundaries of their own home. It used to be that good weather equals bad viewing figures but there's no reason for that any more."
Not all sports fans see Sky as a force for good and the new football season is likely to feature more vociferous fan protests over ticket pricing. Francis says Sky reported the "outcry" among Manchester City supporters over being charged £62 to see their team at Arsenal last season but "you wouldn't expect us to have a say in how clubs decide to go to market to their fans".
It has been a golden sporting summer and Francis says Sky Sports benefits from a "halo effect", even from triumphs like Wimbledon and the Tour de France where it does not have broadcast rights. "We just want people talking about British sport," he says. But not BT Sport.
Pundit play-off: Sky and BT's main men
Sky Sports Jamie Redknapp, Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, Graeme Souness, Matt Le Tissier and Ruud Gullit.
BT Sport Steve McManaman, Owen Hargreaves Michael Owen, Neil Warnock, David James, Rio Ferdinand.
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