Made for TV: The fight for the right to televise football

Premiership gates may be in decline, but football remains the hottest property on television - and at £2.5M a match may even be cheap at the price
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Whether that figure goes up or down will be a question for the potential bidders - which include Sky, the BBC, ITV, NTL, Five and Setanta - and the complex calculations they are making right now involving such issues as cash, public service obligations, ratings, kudos and market share.

Those TV execs will dream of a day when, having landed a package of live rights, they might screen the most marvellous, nail-biting, end-of-season climax, earning superb ratings and high praise. None will expect to match the kind of fantasy viewing figures of the halcyon TV years when England's 1966 World Cup win set an all-time British record of 32.3m viewers, or when Chelsea's FA Cup final replay win over Leeds in 1970 was pipped in that decade's ratings only by news of Apollo 13's splashdown (see panel, right).

But in a multi-platform era of hundreds of channels, internet TV and mobile phone "content", live Premiership football, despite its current decline in attendances, is still the hottest property in British television. Which makes the rights sale of vital importance to the broadcasters, to the clubs and, not least, to all those who pay at least £408 a year to Sky to watch the Premiership live in their homes.

To the armchair fan the outcome of the next auction could make the difference between being able to watch a lot of games free on terrestrial television or actually having to spend more on pay TV. One complication in the process appears to be nearing resolution. The European Commission has for years been urging the League to reform its auction process. It has been seeking guarantees, firstly, that the League sells to more than one broadcaster next time, the rationale being that breaking a monopoly leads to greater choice and cheaper prices to the consumer; and, secondly, that there is a level playing field in the auction process and that Sky cannot be guaranteed exclusivity via "stitch-up" premiums.

However, following a meeting in Brussels between the Premier League and European Commission on Tuesday, these issues appear to have been thrashed out. As a result the next set of rights, will be spread between at least two broadcasters, probably in five separate packages. And each package will be awarded separately to the highest bidder without exclusivity premiums.

The four packages last time sold respectively for £358m (38 games in each of three seasons, Sundays 4pm, equating to £3.14m a game), £282m (38 games, Monday 8pm and Sunday 2pm, £2.47m a game), £230m (31 games, half Saturday lunchtime, others scattered, £2.47m a game) and £154m (31 games, 5.15pm Saturdays, £1.66m a game).

The next rights will probably be packaged in five sets, of differing sizes, offering a range of time slots, but all including a few top-notch matches. A price range of £150m-£300m per package should not be too far off, so the cheapest package could easily be less than £2m per game.

This is where the complicated calculations by individual broadcasters, each with a unique agenda, begin. The BBC has a range of guide tariffs for what most shows should cost it, with "Premium drama" (big names, lavish sets, "exceptional" programming) being the most expensive, costing upwards of £900,000 per hour to make. Sport is so special, there is no tariff. The Beeb will look at the League's tender document, to be released in the spring, and decide what to bid on the basis of value for money and its objectives as a public service broadcaster.

The commercial terrestrial channels will make decisions based on simpler equations. Will advertising revenue pay for the rights' fees? Or if not, is live Premiership football so valuable as a brand builder (imagine iconic "Monday Night Football" on Five or ITV) that those channels might acquire it as a loss leader? Five knows the Premiership might help to send its 6-7 per cent audience share soaring, at a cost.

For Setanta, the maths involves not just greater advertising income and profile but the prospect of subscribers' cash. It may bid more because it can directly make more, selling via pay-per-view.

Sky, of course, has much to gain from keeping a large share of the rights, and the most to lose. It has witnessed the truth of Rupert Murdoch's famous declaration that sports rights are the "battering ram" to get pay TV into people's homes. It has expanded its reach to almost eight million British homes, with Premier League football the key element.

Sky remains best placed, with its established goodwill, experience, and the deepest pockets, to outbid its rivals. It could also lose revenue of close to £2bn a year.

How does Sky make so much?

Well, apart from its subscribers, it rakes in around £100m a year from rivals NTL and Telewest (currently merging) to provide them with football access for their own customers, plus another £200m a year from pubs and clubs for the rights to screen its content. In other words, its effective current net outlay on rights is not £341m a year, but about £41m. But then there are the subscribers. There are around five million of them, paying £408 a year each for its sports channels, earning revenues of some £2bn. That is a lot of money to lose, and suggests that despite Sky's claim that it has in the past paid a premium for monopoly access it will still be offering serious money now it is clear that monopoly is to be broken up.

Ostensibly, Sky's chief rival next time should be NTL, which has some three million customers but could hope to increase that significantly if it, instead of Sky, had a stranglehold on the football. But has NTL got the resources or the bottle to take the stupendous gamble necessary to outbid Sky and win a majority of the rights? On the available evidence, no.

Last week, NTL and ITV jointly wrote to the chairmen of the League's 20 clubs, pleading the case that at least 50 per cent of rights should be sold to a broadcaster other than Sky. Many observers within football regarded the letter as a publicity stunt to try to influence the EC to demand a 50 per cent share for a non-Sky broadcaster.

NTL claims that without a 50 per cent rule, it would make no commercial sense for Sky's rivals to bid, and a lack of bidders could be the result. At best this seems disingenuous, because the likes of the BBC, Five and Setanta probably want no more than one package of rights anyway. At worst, it is hollow sabre-rattling. It is entirely within NTL's own hands whether it bids big for the rights, or just whines about Sky's hard-won market dominance (which admittedly has allowed Sky freedom in establishing the going rate for subscribers).

So where will those precious rights actually go? A personal view is that Sky, desperate to hold on to its crown jewels, will bid highest and win four packages, and that Setanta will bust a gut to land the fifth.

But there remains the tantalising prospect that either the BBC or Five may yet be inspired by the dream of being the first terrestrial channel to show live Premier League games, delivering the people's game to the people, live and free, for the first time in 15 years. What an old-fashioned concept. What a prospect.

But at what price? An educated guess is that the overall figure will not stray greatly from the £2.5m a game TV currently pays. But that is where we came in...

Top 10 British TV audiences for football

1 England v West Germany* (World Cup final, 1966) 32.3m

2 Chelsea v Leeds** (FA Cup final replay, 1970) 28.49m

3 England v West Germany (World Cup qtr-final, 1970) 26.3m

4 England v Germany (World Cup semi-final, 1990) 26.2m

5 Man Utd v Benfica (European Cup final, 1968) 26m

6 Leeds v Bayern Munich (European Cup final, 1975) 24.2m

7 Liverpool v FC Brugge (European Cup final, 1978) 23.9m

8 England v Argentina (World Cup QF, 1998) 23.8m

9 England v Germany (Euro 96 semi-final, 1996) 23.8m

10 England v West Germany (EC qualifier, 1972) 23.7m

...and some recent highlights

England v Portugal (Euro 2004 qtr-final, BBC1, peak) 23.9m

Champions' League final, 2005 (ITV, Sky and pub viewers) 20m

FA Cup final, 2005 (best total audience for almost 10 yrs) 13.7m

England v Poland (12 Oct 2005, WCQ, BBC1, peak) 11.2m

NB: All figures since 1981, when BARB ratings began, are universally accepted. Prior to that, various companies polled independently. Figures here from BBC, ITV, and British Film Institute collated/weighted research.

* Calculated by BFI as most-watched programme in British TV history, ahead of Diana, Princess of Wales' funeral.

** This event drew the No 2 viewing figures of all programmes in the 1970s, second only to news coverage of Apollo 13's splashdown, April 1970.

Who might bid for Premiership rights?

BSKYB

Current rights holder, exclusively, for all 138 live Premiership games per season. Will bid big for every package next time, knowing it cannot win them all but wanting as much as it can get.

NTL

Has just over 3m subscribers, against Sky's nearly 8m. NTL has said it - along with ITV - would be willing to pay around £170m a year for 50 per cent of live rights.

ITV

Has not held any League rights since highlights package from 2001-04. Keen to return, possibly in a joint venture with NTL. A letter from them to club chairmen insisted they would need at least 50 per cent of the rights to bother bidding.

BBC

New director of sport, Roger Mosey, has not said the Beeb will bid but said the rights sale would be "a major challenge for all broadcasters in the next 18 months". Likely to bid for one or two of the smaller packages with the hope of gaining one, maximum.

FIVE

Director of programmes, Dan Chambers, has said it would be "gorgeous" to win one package of rights, and that Five will "pay the market rate". Will need full backing of parent company RTL, however, which will need to be convinced that ad revenue will make a deal profitable.

SETANTA

Recently hired Sky Sports' deputy managing director, Trevor East, a key figure in TV sport for 30 years - 10 at Sky. He says Setanta "has the same potential" as Sky. Setanta already owns SPL rights and Premier League rights for North America.

BT

Says it will "definitely not be bidding". Whether Sky's foray into broadband brings a change of heart remains to be seen.

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