Blighty soccer rights go to three nets

BSkyB, NTL and ITV to share Premier League

LONDON — The TV rights to English Premier League soccer have been awarded to BSkyB, NTL and the ITV network for £1.64 billion ($2.48 billion) — leaving the BBC as the big loser.

The lucrative pay TV rights represent the crown jewel of sports programming in the U.K.

Current rights holder satcaster BSkyB will pay $1.65 billion for the live rights to 66 matches per year for three years beginning 2001, and cabler NTL $492 million for 40 pay-per-view games. BSkyB is stumping up an additional $33.8 million for interactive rights.

And in what must come as a body blow to the BBC, ITV has stolen the free-to-air highlights held by the pubcaster since 1992 — for $274.5 million.

Not competing

It is understood that the BBC’s bid was considerably lower than ITV’s, yet another instance of the pubcaster failing to be competitive for sports programming.

Adding insult to injury is that ITV previously poached the BBC’s vet sports presenter Des Lynam, who will once again front the highlights, albeit on another web.

Although the league’s windfall falls short of the $3 billion some were predicting, it is still well above the $1.1 billion BSkyB and the Beeb paid last time out for four years.

Swift process

The speed of the last, and only second, round of bidding took many observers by surprise. Not only did the league’s 20 clubs decide not to prolong the process with an auction, Wednesday’s announcement came a day early.

What is not known is whether BSkyB actually outbid NTL.

Speculation had it that NTL bid $2.6 billion to BSkyB’s $2.25 billion in the first round for the two pay TV packages. It is possible that News Corp-controlled BSkyB won because it had done so much for the game.

The dynamic nevertheless changes. With NTL in the picture, the next time the rights are up for grabs could be even more of a battle.

BSkyB and NTL’s terrestrial rival ONdigital was always a long shot, but ONdigital carries BSkyB’s sports channels, as does NTL and Britain’s other cabler, Telewest. Having paid so much, BSkyB will undoubtedly pass its costs on to the other broadcasters.

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