Soccer TV rights match kicks off

66 Premier League games expected to fetch $3.2 bil

LONDON — The battle began Monday for one of the world’s hottest broadcast deals, as England’s top 20 soccer clubs set terms for TV rights to their Premier League games.

In a competition expected to bring a windfall of up to £2 billion ($3.2 billion) for the League clubs, their chairmen agreed to auction off a three-year showcase of 66 live games by July alongside several smaller packages.

The deal, starting with the 2001-02 season, will widen Premier League coverage with a new bundle of 40 games for pay-per-view screening, two highlights contracts and a license to show games on video-on-demand and mobile telephones.

BSkyB paid approximately $1.1 billion under the current contract for a four-year rights deal to exclusive live coverage of 60 games, while the BBC paid $117 million for highlights.

BSkyB in competish

The Premier League games have been a keystone of BSkyB’s empire, which now boasts 2.8 million digital subscribers, but the satcaster has more competition this time.

Cable operator NTL, Granada — which co-owns pay TV company Ondigital with Carlton — the BBC, ITV and video-on-demand operators such as Yes Television are expected to enter the battle.

Under the 2001-04 deal, many more live games will be shown and media groups will be able to bid for as many packages as they want, either alone or in tandem with other contenders. The deadline for bids has been set for May 10.

Under the main 66-game package, which corresponds to BSkyB’s current deal, broadcasters will have first pick of games while the pay-per-view contract will have second choice.

“This package is designed to recognize that technology is changing, that new platforms are being created and that we want to embrace these but in a careful and considered way,” said Premier League spokesman Mike Lee.

League nurse

BSkyB has used Premier League to drive take-up of its satellite television service and is largely credited with nurturing the league back to health.

While BSkyB wants to keep Premier League at the core of its service, it has been hedging its bets along with rivals, buying up stakes in various soccer clubs.

BSkyB now has stakes of up to 10% in five clubs — Chelsea, Manchester United, Leeds United, Sunderland and Premier League outsider Manchester City — and media deals with all except Manchester United, which it tried, and was stopped from, taking over.

NTL has stakes in Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Newcastle United, while Granada has a stake in Liverpool.

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