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Cablers take the field

Unity aims to to score lofty goals with soccer deal

BERLIN — German top division Bundesliga soccer doesn’t kick off until August, but the game is on for Germany’s burgeoning cable market.

Premiere, until recently Germany’s only subscription-based TV service, took a major hit in December when it lost lucrative Bundesliga rights for the next three years to regional cabler Unity Media in a $1 billion deal.

Soccer has always been Premiere’s most vital programming asset, and its loss has gutted Premiere’s market capitalization by 40% as shares nosedived following the deal.

Now the upstart pay-TV platform can look forward to a rush of subscribers in the soccer-mad country. Backed by equity investment firms Apollo and BC Partners, Unity has set lofty goals. It’s promised to keep monthly subscriptions for live matches below $24, about half the price of Premiere’s package.

By doing so, it hopes to boost digital subscribers from 160,000 to 6 million within three years — double Premiere’s numbers.

Unity reaches 7 million mostly analog households, but it’s looking to partner with other cable and satellite operators to ensure nationwide reach for its digital subscription package.

Some 43% of German households receive TV via satellite, and Unity is negotiating with satcaster Astra. Unity also will likely partner with fellow regional cabler Kabel Deutschland (KDG), which reaches two-thirds of cable households (about 10 million analog customers and 400,000 digital subscribers), a figure that could jump with the lure of live soccer.

While Unity’s goals may sound optimistic, Unity and KDG together could win 2 million subscribers in two years, according to a recent study by HypoVereinsbank.

Premiere, meanwhile, is seeking a truce while at the same time playing legal hardball.

Premiere topper Georg Kofler continues to express hopes of negotiating a deal with Unity’s sports arm Arena to sublicense matches, and is offering to provide its satellite platform, technical know-how and production equipment to help Unity with game broadcasts.

Unity Media chief exec Parm Sandhu and Arena topper Bernard de Roos have so far rejected the offer. De Roos says Arena will set up a new pay platform in Germany and break Premiere’s monopoly.

Yet Unity is under pressure to have everything set to roll by summer for the start of the Bundesliga season, including a smooth-running broadcasting operation with on-air talent and service personnel. Premiere already has this — and that’s what Kofler is pushing.

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