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BT join the battle for Barclays Premier League TV supremacy

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

In the basement of BT’s headquarters in London, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s, Michael Calvin looked at a camera and said: “Welcome to lifesapitch.co.uk.” Rory Smith (The Times), Jason Burt (Sunday Telegraph) and footballer turned journalist Adrian Clarke were about to record the latest podcast for the site, with Arsenal and Manchester City top of the agenda.

Next season BT will become big players on Planet Football, taking some of Sky’s Barclays Premier League games. Michael Jarvis, Head of Corporate Communications, BT Retail, said: “BT won a regulatory hearing which enabled them to sell Sky Sports 1 and 2. Ofcom [the independent regulator] said Sky had to wholesale those channels to us which was a new step for us.

“We’d gone from selling calls to also selling broadband and we believed our customers wanted a bundle including TV. A crucial part of that bundle for some customers was Sky Sports. We wanted to set up a web site to show a commitment to sports fans, to showcase something we thought they’d enjoy and prove BT had something to offer in this market.

“Lifesapitch.co.uk has been going since 2010 and we now have around 200,000 unique users.”

In a short time BT have gone from wholesaling Sky Sports 1 and 2 to owning the Barclays Premier League rights for 38 live games per season, 18 of which are the top pick “so we’ll have some absolutely fantastic matches, most of which will be 12:45 on a Saturday,” said Jarvis.

To retail these, BT have had to set up from scratch a football channel, which will be called BT Sport, and are currently talking to presenters, pundits and those working behind the scenes who will bring us the live broadcasts. BT have also signed up for Aviva Premiership rugby, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, the top tier of Brazilian football and Major League Soccer.

Jake Humphrey, 34, will be the face of BT Sport. A former match reporter with BBC Radio 5 Live, Humphrey began his television career by presenting the 2006 Commonwealth Games before moving on to Football Focus. In 2009 he became the anchor-man for the BBC’s Formula One coverage, while this year Humphrey played a major role in the channel’s coverage of Euro 2012 and the London 2012 Olympic games.

“We’re delighted to get Jake, he’s young, fresh, high profile and has done a lot of football. He suits the BT channel and will bring something new to the table.”

Live football is very much part of satellite television’s programming but 10 years ago a TV football podcast was unheard of. Since then, there has been live coverage of England’s 2010 World Cup qualifier in Ukraine broadcast exclusively on line three years ago and with newspaper circulations showing a general downward trend, the electronic media is a growing force.

Lifesapitch.co.uk, which is updated several times daily, will continue “but develop” said Jarvis. “We’ll be looking at magazine content and it will grow into the television aspect. We are approaching a really pivotal decade for sports broadcasting. BT’s network should cover as much as 90 per cent of UK homes in the next five years so a really fast broadband connection will be widely available.

“The broadcast of the England game was an interesting experiment and the more the fibre network grows the more screening games over broadband will be viable, but in the coming years games will also still be delivered over satellite.

“What’s driven BT’s entry into the sports market is that customers don’t want to buy products separately; they are given a better deal if they buy their phone-line and broadband together.” While the financial details have yet to be finalised, Jarvis said: “There will be a fantastic offer for BT customers, they will get the best deal for Barclays Premier League football on the new channel. Sky Sports customers will still be able to get the channel easily.”

BT’s “home” will be the state of the art international broadcast centre at Olympic Park in Stratford. In the meantime, Calvin and the studio guests recorded the latest podcast with Burt adamant: “If City don’t finish fourth Roberto Mancini will have to go. He also seems to attack the wrong targets in the dressing-room. The players are disillusioned by the manager.” Clarke’s view went one step further: “He’s a dead man walking, even if they win the Barclays Premier League he’ll still go.”

Calvin wound up proceedings by looking ahead to the January transfer market which gave Smith the platform for his dry wit. “Xabi Alonso to return to Anfield?” asked Calvin. “Oh yes, I’m sure he’d want to leave Real Madrid where he’s winning honours every year to resume his career with Martin Skrtel…”

And so ended the latest lifesapitch.co.uk, but in August 2013 BT will be in our homes, not just on the electronic media.

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