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Setanta adds kick to soccer bid

Sports platform joins BBC, ITV, NTL, Five in competish

The battle for the lucrative TV rights to the U.K.’s Premier League soccer took another twist on Thursday with the news that private equity company Benchmark Capital will acquire 35%-40% of Blighty’s No. 2 sports platform Setanta Sports for a reported E30 million ($36 million).

Move will give Setanta more muscle to bid for Premier League games once satcaster BSkyB’s contract ends in 2007. The European Union wants to end BSkyB’s monopoly.

The BBC, commercial rival ITV, cabler NTL and terrestrial web Five have all said they would bid for the matches, but Setanta is also expected to put in an aggressive offer.

“We would have done the deal anyway, but the fact that the Premier League rights are going to be available makes it very timely and even more compelling,” said former Saban exec Ynon Kreiz, who led the deal in his new role as general partner at Benchmark Capital Europe.

Founded in 1992 by joint CEOs Leonard Ryan and Michael O’Rourke, Setanta is already a partner with the investment firm in NASN (North American Sports Network) and has recently signaled its ambitions to become a bigger player in the sports market with the appointment of Trevor East, the former Sky Sports deputy managing director.

Now the company, which is valued at north of $120 million, will be well positioned to continue its expansion in Europe and the U.S. Securing rights to Premier League matches will be a key priority. However, Kreiz doesn’t see Setanta emerging as a direct challenger to BSkyB, which has built its business on strong sports offerings.

“They’re not looking to outbid Sky,” he said. “They would effectively complement Sky’s position. I think Sky will always remain the home of English football. They’ve done a great job with it.”

As well as acquiring other rights, management will also launch more channels and continue the rollout of NASN, which is available in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France.

In recent months, Setanta has struck two important deals for the channel, securing NFL rights in 21 countries, including France and Germany, and NHL rights for TV, broadband and mobile across all of Europe for four years.

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