UK: Sports Broadcasting In The Post-Setanta Era

Last Updated: 16 March 2010
Article by Adam Welsh and Justin Reid

For many commentators, the demise of Setanta on 23 June 2009 was perhaps the most significant sporting casualty of the economic downturn. With a whole range of sports left financially exposed, the repercussions for sport appeared serious. In addition to the financial impact upon sports governing bodies and clubs, there was a real risk that the British viewing public would suffer major sporting events disappearing from their screens. However, as the dust settles in the post-Setanta era, the picture appears rosier than originally feared.

The rise and spectacular fall of Setanta has been well documented. Starting life in a West London dance hall over two decades ago, Setanta emerged as an exciting new prospect in sport broadcasting. After years of vying with Sky to reach the top of the sports broadcasting tree Setanta was defeated - Sky emerged triumphant. For Sky Sports, the demise of Setanta may have been welcome relief, however, for the viewing public the collapse of the Irish broadcaster left a potentially significant hole in the broadcasting of top level sport in the UK.

Flash forward four months - 10 October 2009 represented a groundbreaking day in the world of football. For the first time, a World Cup qualifier (Ukraine v England) was shown exclusively on the internet. The Football Association holds the rights for home internationals played at Wembley, with broadcasters bidding for the rights to broadcast the matches. Centralised control of viewing rights to all home internationals enables The Football Association to "secure maximum coverage for the viewing public", whilst ensuring a "fair commercial value for its broadcasting rights." In contrast, England internationals played overseas are the responsibility of the host country's football association. With the Ukrainian Football Association having sold the rights to Setanta, and Setanta having ceased broadcasting, the Ukraine FA was unable to find a television broadcaster willing to purchase the rights. Instead, the rights were sold to Perform, a US sports video operator, who agreed to stream the match over the internet on a pay-per-view basis.

Despite many dismissing internet broadcasting as a temporary fix to the broadcasting problems in the post-Setanta era – is this really the case? A look at internet broadcasters such as Perform, suggests not. Although it may be a strange concept for British sports fans, internet broadcasting of sporting events is a big deal across the pond with Perform alone streaming approximately 15,000 live sporting events each year. Of course, there are many hurdles to overcome if internet broadcasts are to become a serious alternative to mainstream broadcasters. With issues such as bandwidth availability, limitations upon viewing numbers and the challenge of educating users in web technology, it is generally considered that the internet is not yet mature enough to threaten television broadcasters.

Although public scepticism prior to the Ukraine World Cup Qualifier was understandable, the internet does have a place within UK sports broadcasting. When Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City couldn't find broadcasters for their UEFA Cup away matches in December 2008, Perform offered live-streaming of the games via the club's websites. Similarly, on 26 April 2009, British World Champion Carl Froch fought Jermaine Taylor on US prime time television, but it was pay-per-view internet streams which provided the only means for British fans to see the fight.

With mobile handsets becoming more media-friendly and increasing talk of 'Broadband Britain', multi-channel distribution lends itself well to supporting events that would not interest the major broadcasters. With a variety of billing options, and a relatively low pay-per-view cost, internet broadcasts enable small amounts of revenue to be generated for minority interest sports and the lower levels of the major sports. Furthermore, these channels will enable fans to access sporting events that would not have been available unless viewing the event live. With the World Cup around the corner and the London 2012 Olympics to follow, rights owners will be eager to exploit these additional distribution channels to increase viewers and maximise revenues.

Has the collapse of Setanta changed the face of sports broadcasting in the UK? We would suggest not. For the foreseeable future, we can rest assured that television broadcasting of top level sporting events is here to stay. ESPN have seen to that, acquiring some of the premier rights previously held by Setanta, most notably, the rights to Premier League football matches and FA Cup matches. However, with the ongoing development of internet platforms, and the impact of the credit crunch still being felt it is likely that sport clubs will increasingly turning to companies such as Perform to broadcast live events online. Looking at the success of iTunes and download technology in the music industry, if broadcasters are able to provide a reliable and affordable pay-per-view service, the era of the internet broadcaster may shortly be with us.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Adam Welsh
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