ESPN flexes its muscles as sports broadcasting remains big business
THIS weekend sees the beginning of the winter schedule for most sports broadcasters, with the FA Premier League season starting across the water. The domestic rugby season kicks off a fortnight later when the Magners League and English Premiership begin anew.
For years, Sky dominated the sports broadcasting landscape. That hegemony has begun to be challenged however, first by Setanta and now by ESPN.
In an era of multiple sports channels, the fight for broadcast rights has become more intense than ever. In Ireland, Sky, ESPN, Setanta and domestic television all have substantial sports portfolios for this winter, with several tournaments switching channels.
Simon Kelehan, the head of television at cable provider UPC, explains how sport on television has evolved in recent years.
"Originally, the Premier League sold their television rights as one package so a broadcaster could have exclusive rights to the league. The EU Commission got involved in 2002, however, and mandated that the package be split up four years later.
"The broadcasting rights for the Premier League have been split into seven packages in Ireland from this season for the next three years. Figures for Ireland are not available but Sky paid £1.6bn (€1.9bn) for the right to broadcast five of the packages, so that gives an idea of just how big the football deal is worth," says Mr Kelehan.
"The main change this year is that Sky have taken over the Monday night slot from ESPN. ESPN still have the rights for Saturday evening games, while Setanta Ireland have retained their 33-game Saturday afternoon slot here."
Despite their recent struggles, Liverpool, alongside Manchester United, are still the most popular club amongst Irish fans.
"We've seen the spike in audience during pay-per-view matches in the past," says Mr Kelehan. "Arsenal and Chelsea just don't have the same following over here."
Rugby has probably seen the biggest change this season. In a big blow to Setanta, the rights for the Magners League will now be shared by RTE, TG4 and BBC Northern Ireland. Setanta will only have highlights.
The English Premiership will be mostly on ESPN, with Sky only retaining a third of the games from last season.
"One has to remember that ESPN dwarfs Sky and most other broadcasters worldwide. Its size can't really be understated," says Mr Kelehan. UPC offer ESPN as part of their top end digital packages.
He's right. If ESPN are serious about the UK and Ireland market, then they have the financial firepower to make a big impression. Premier League and rugby rights have been used in the past to establish credibility as a serious sports broadcaster.
The demographic those sports bring in -- a mass market for football and, generally, affluent males for rugby --are coveted by advertisers. Despite only having one package this year, the addition of the Premiership rugby suggests ESPN are in for the long haul.