BT eyes Champions League advertising boost from new kick-offs as sub-licensing not ruled out
BT, the UK telecoms group, expects a 30-per-cent uplift in advertising given the new kick-off slots offered in the Uefa Champions League from 2018-19 onwards, as it seeks to recoup its hefty investment in the rights.
BT Sport, the telecoms giant’s pay-TV operation, this week retained rights to both the Champions League and second-tier Europa League, paying £1.18 billion ($1.44 billion) for the new three-year cycle, a 32-per-cent uplift on its current outlay and with exclusivity across all live games, highlights and in-match clips.
Increased advertising revenues have been identified as one way of offsetting the heightened cost, although John Petter, chief executive of BT’s consumer division, has denied that customers will be forced to foot the bill through price rises, while also leaving the door open to a sub-licensing agreement with one of the UK’s free-to-air broadcasters.
From 2018-19 onwards, the Champions League will adopt new kick-off slots of 6pm (GMT) and 8pm and Andy Haworth, BT’s strategy director, told PA Sport that the company is “well positioned to create value with our digital offering and the double headers.”
He added: “We think the two kick-off slots will increase our advertising revenues by 30 per cent and by pushing more footage out on social media and YouTube we will be going where the viewers are in increasing numbers.
“We broadcast both finals on our YouTube channel last season and got 12 million views – that was pleasantly surprising and while it is hard to make predictions of how big this audience can get, it is growing. And as a broadband provider, we are particularly excited about growing digital audiences.”
At present, games in the Champions Leaguestart at 7.45pm in the UK (with the exception of some matches played in Eastern Europe that often begin earlier due to the time difference), and the new split is similar to the one currently used in the Europa League (6pm and 8.05pm).
The exclusivity secured by BT means that, as it stands, there will be no free-to-air coverage of either competition on the UK’s free-to-air broadcasters, with the telecoms group instead using social media platforms to make weekly highlights, the magazine programme, clips and both finals available on a free-to-view basis.
BT Sport has shown one game per match week on its free-to-air channel BT Sport Showcase, but made no mention of the channel in its rights announcement this week and, outwith free social media coverage of the finals, has not specified whether other games will be shown live without sitting behind a paywall.
Heineken, the Dutch beer brewer and Champions League sponsor, recently called for free-to-air coverage of at least one game per match week on “public” television, but Petter told the Guardian that there is no pressure from Uefa to sub-license free-to-air rights.
Petter remarked: “There is no requirement for us to do that at all. They have been happy to see the sorts of audiences BT Sport has been getting.”
He continued: “On the other hand, if there is a great deal to be done we will look at it. [But] there is no pressure at all.”
BT has faced criticism for low audience figures, leading to some calls for a return of live coverage to ITV, the free-to-air commercial network that previously held such rights and currently show highlights, while there had been some suggestions that the telecoms group could team up with Channel 4 during the latest invitation to tender.
Pay-TV rival Sky flagged up its own significant fall in Champions League audiences when its long-running association ended in 2015, and, asked if ratings had dropped, Petter replied: “That may be true of other channels but it is not true of us. We are up 5 per cent.”
Petter denied that customers were being squeezed to fund BT’s ongoing battle with Sky for premium sports rights.
He remarked: “I don’t think that is true. The broadband market is very competitive. Our share of the broadband market has been growing and customers vote with their feet [if they are unhappy]. The fact that the market is competitive means our offering has to represent good value for money…
Petter added: "I don’t think people should read that this [deal] translates to price increases.”
Meanwhile, Haworth insisted that BT had gone into the latest Champions League and Europa League rights auction “rationally.”
Just last week, Gavin Patterson, BT’s chief executive, claimed that the inflated prices paid for sports rights must come to an end.
BT, which bought the EE mobile operator last year in a £12.5-billion deal, has vowed to “bring the best of the action” from the Uefa club competitions to its large mobile customer base.