Ratings war on the cards as ESPN charge into new ground

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The Independent Online

Mark Durden-Smith will swap bug-eating in the Australian jungle for a ratings war on the fields of Exeter and Stockport as the new presenter of ESPN's Aviva Premiership coverage. The US-owned pay sports channel are taking over from Sky as the dominant broadcaster of England's domestic league by showing 43 live matches next season including the play-off final at Twickenham in May.

The Leicester and England lock Ben Kay is hanging up his boots to take up a co-commentator's microphone alongside the former BBC man Nick Mullins, while Durden-Smith, who was the first presenter of Sky's Rugby Club magazine programme from 1996 to 2002 and more recently fronted I'm a Celebrity... Get Me out of Here, will present programmes from an "interactive" set at every top-flight ground. There will also be a highlights package every Monday evening.

ESPN is majority owned by Disney and though they have some experience broadcasting other people's coverage, they are charging gung-ho into new ground, having signed a three-year deal with Premier Rugby for the rights forfeited by Setanta.

"We will model the live match coverage on our College Game Day in the US," said the ESPN vice-president Jeroen Oerlemans. "There's a mobile set which will be on site at every ground and a lot of the fans interacting with it. They can show their banners and in the US you often see the letters ESPN used to spell out messages of support. We don't do it yet in our football coverage here but in rugby there are rivalries rather than animosity. We are making a hefty investment and it'll be very lively."

Kay's former Tigers team-mate Austin Healey will analyse the play with reporting by Welsh sports presenter Sarra Elgan, wife of the Scarlets and Ireland flanker Simon Easterby and the daughter of the Wales wing Elgan Rees. The production will be by Sunset + Vine who won awards for their cricket on Channel 4.

Sky are left with one semi-final among their 26 live Premiership matches though they have 3-D coverage to themselves. It is a long way from dog eats dog, as Sky invite their own customers to subscribe to ESPN for an additional £9 per month. On some Saturdays, Sky and ESPN will show matches back to back, and half of every weekend's Premiership fixtures will be shown live.

It represents a gamble by the clubs with their still fledgling spectator loyalty as the average supporter can now watch half his or her team's matches without leaving the living room.

But the battle for rugby's small-screen audience is intense. The BBC hold live rights to the Six Nations Championship and ITV recently extended their World Cup deal to 2015, while the Heineken Cup stays on Sky.