BT Group Acquires ESPN's U.K. And Ireland Channels In Deal Worth 'Low Tens Of Millions'
BT Group and ESPN announced they have agreed that BT will acquire ESPN's U.K. and Ireland TV channels business. These primarily comprise the ESPN and ESPN America channels and their live sports rights portfolio, including the FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League, UEFA Europa League, and the German Bundesliga. The transaction is expected to be complete on July 31 after which BT will continue to operate at least one ESPN-branded channel which is expected to form part of the BT Sport TV package that will be launched by BT this summer. Additionally, the deal will allow BT to continue to show a host of U.S. sports currently shown on ESPN America, including NCAA College Basketball, NCAA College Football and NASCAR (ESPN). In London, Ashling O'Connor reported the deal is said to be worth "in the low tens of millions." ESPN's sale of its sports channels to BT is an admission by the Disney-owned U.S. network of "its failure to crack" the U.K. market, where Sky has dominated since the launch of the Premier League in '92. The deal gives BT a "clutch of rights as well as about 85 people with experience in running sports channels" (LONDON TIMES, 2/25).
CLASSIC TO GO DARK: Also in London, Deans & Gibson reported ESPN Classic, which is not part of the BT deal, is "expected to cease transmission across Europe, the Middle East and Africa." The ESPN operation will be moving from Hammersmith to BT Sport's headquarters in the converted media center in Stratford's Olympic Park. All 97 ESPN UK and Ireland staff "are understood to have been offered the chance to transfer to BT Sport." However, the future of ESPN's presenting team "is unclear, as most are understood to have contracts ending in July." The broadcaster's Premier League coverage "is anchored by Ray Stubbs, with Kevin Keegan as the lead analyst and Jon Champion and Chris Waddle commentating" (GUARDIAN, 2/25). REUTERS' Rhys Jones wrote BT is "seeking to drive subscriptions to its BT Vision pay TV offering through its enhanced sports portfolio just as BSkyB has done to great effect." BT Vision "has only around" 700,000 customers, while BSkyB has more than 10 million customers (REUTERS, 2/25). The PA's Martyn Ziegler wrote the news is "another blow for Sky." BT's emergence as a serious challenger to BSkyB for sports rights "has continued." BT TV CEO Marc Watson said, "The FA Cup, Scottish Premier League and Europa League rights will allow us to offer customers of BT Sport even more quality live football, including our first games from the Scottish top flight and our first European competition rights" (PA, 2/25).