On February 14 this year shares in Sky plc rose 3% following the news that the
company had retained Premier League TV rights for the three seasons beginning in 2019/20.
Nothing strange there. Keeping the Premier League was considered a matter of existential importance for Sky. No wonder the markets were happy.
But it didn’t stop there.
Rupert Murdoch, through 21st Century Fox, had been engaged in a takeover battle to regain full control of Sky, the company he’d built on the back of Premier League football in the 1990s.
US cable giant Comcast (which owns NBC) decided they wanted to scupper Fox and get their hands on Sky and its football-driven subscriber base. Then things got really complicated.
As Comcast launched a rival bid, Disney entered the fray. They’d been buying up bits of Fox anyway and now planned to take Sky for themselves.
Whoever gets Sky after this tussle will have to pay around £26 billion for the privilege, a full £7bn above what Uncle Rupert had offered before the bidding war started — an increase in value, in very large part, driven by the simple fact of securing those precious Premier League rights.
Unbelievable Jeff, as one of Sky’s better-known employees might say.
Of course, multi- billion-dollar takeover battles are of less importance than the question which troubles supporters most these days: Where can I see the match?
In a week when golf fans must watch the US PGA Championship via an app controlled by newcomer Eleven Sports, the good news for Premier League viewers ahead of the new season is that it’s as-you-were.
Sky, BT and BBC’s Match of the Day will again be your ports of call, as they will largely continue to be once the new deal kicks in next season.
Sky likes to think it ‘owns’ the Premier League, and even with the proliferation of other broadcasters and the general cacophony of modern media, their pundits and coverage continue to set the agenda.
The return of Jamie Carragher and the departure of Thierry Henry represent a net gain for Sky.
Carragher has been reinstated following the spitting incident that saw him suspended in March.
Along with Gary Neville and Graeme Souness, he provides Sky with a combination of authority and analytical punch with which their rivals cannot compete.
Henry, along with Jamie Redknapp, was a weak link, and had delivered little to justify his large stipend other than looking smart in three-piece suits.
Sky’s top men have even occasionally contradicted the received wisdom that they wilfully overhype, and never criticise, ‘the product’: witness how Neville and Carragher attacked the increasing imbalance of the league which sees smaller clubs shut up shop against the likes of Manchester City.
Plus, while Sky have Martin Tyler on commentary it will always feel like the Premier League’s natural home.
BT will suffer for no longer having the high-profile combo of Rio Ferdinand, Steven
Gerrard and Frank Lampard, two thirds of whom have gone into management.
While lacking the cutting edge of their Sky rivals, this trio did provide genuine contemporary insight, and BT will need to add some gravitas to boost an otherwise modest roster.
While Gary Lineker’s Match of the Day crew have attempted to compete with Sky’s technological wizardry through more detailed analysis and the use of new-fangled statistics, the sense remains that the BBC has not since Alan Hansen had an authoritative senior pundit.
Alan Shearer has manfully grappled with the role, but the Beeb’s coverage has lacked the identity and authority of Hansen in his pomp. Would he, for example, have saved their World Cup coverage from its worst jingoistic excesses?
But while Lineker, Neville et al continue to preside on the box, change is coming.
Since Murdoch famously used the embryonic Premier League as a “battering ram” for his fledgling pay-TV company it has been the most treasured of all sports television rights.
Where Sky once used sport to get people to put up satellite dishes, the corporations battling for rights today know it can do the same thing for all manner of streaming services, broadband bundles and entertainment platforms.
And the Premier League is subject to the same shifting sands of technology that have seen other rights greedily grasped.
Perhaps the most significant sports rights news since Sky’s early-90s game-changer slipped out quietly earlier this summer.
The Premier League announced that they had sold one package of matches from their latest rights auction to Amazon.
The online megamarket will stream 20 games on its Amazon Prime service from next season, consisting of simultaneous games over two midweek match-nights, signalling the first partnership of TV sport’s crown jewel with one of the global tech giants (in Ireland the Amazon package was awarded to Premier Sports, owned by Setanta Sports founder Mickey O’Rourke, who also picked up the 33 ROI-only Saturday 3pm games currently shown by Sky. I know what you’re thinking: how much is all this going to cost me?).
It’s a further sign of Amazon dipping its toe into sports rights and if they decide to plunge further in subsequent auctions then the way we watch the Premier League may soon change utterly.
Amazon and the other tech superpowers prefer large-scale global plays to the narrow territorial slices by which sports rights are normally distributed.
It’s entirely feasible that partnering the Premier League as a worldwide broadcaster is the ultimate endgame, which, given that Amazon’s financial might dwarves even the likes of Disney, appears an entirely attainable objective.
All this chimes with the Premier League’s primary aim: getting as much moolah for their product as they possibly can.
Especially after the headline news from this year’s renewal, which was that, for the first time, the total amount paid for UK Premier League rights had actually gone down.
Having appeared bent on a course of mutually assured destruction in driving the
previous auction north of £5.1bn, Sky and BT both cooled their jets this time, securing the precious packages for around £4.7bn.
If this was a signal that the UK market had peaked, then attentions have long been
diverted to global potential.
Currently raking in £1.1bn per annum from overseas rights, the Premier League is expected to continue increasing the share of its revenue which comes from foreign markets.
At some point, overseas TV revenue is expected to overtake domestic earnings. What that will mean in terms of who calls the shots regarding when and where matches are played and even where teams are based is anyone’s guess.
Imagine a Premier League controlled by Amazon or Google which generates the bulk of its revenues in Asia and the US: how will the priorities of Bournemouth, Boston, and Beijing be balanced then?
The Premier League was never just a football competition, but neither is it any longer just a TV sports property.
It is a 360-degree multi-media cultural phenomenon, wrapped around our lives like an electronic fog, cut up into countless social media clips, deconstructed into soundbites and memes, analysed and contextualised, previewed and reviewed, reviled and revered.
It drives Wall Street stock markets and the strategies of multinational tech companies. It’s the greatest show on earth and everything that’s wrong with the world.
Every shot, goal, and save is viewed in every corner of the globe and each controversial penalty decision is reviewed until in all the languages of the world we can say: “Not for me.” And it’s live.
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