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The rise and fall... and rise of Setanta Sports


 Goal-den opportunity: Dutch striker Robin Van Persie of Manchester United is just one of the soccer stars to be seen this season on Setanta.

Goal-den opportunity: Dutch striker Robin Van Persie of Manchester United is just one of the soccer stars to be seen this season on Setanta.

Goal-den opportunity: Dutch striker Robin Van Persie of Manchester United is just one of the soccer stars to be seen this season on Setanta.

At 3pm this afternoon, the madness will resume. The gardening will be left for another day, the afternoon shopping will be postponed until tomorrow. Across the country, football fans will put their feet up, flick their UPC box to channel 401 or on Sky to channel 423, and settle down to watch Arsenal take on Aston Villa live on Setanta Sports. The Premier League is back.

The fact that Setanta Sports is still going is something of a miracle. The Irish broadcaster has had a rollercoaster ride since it was set up more than 20 years ago.

It is a story of a company that grew quickly, flew too close to the sun and came crashing back to earth. Now it is growing again, and as the Premier League kicks off today, it is once more going strong.

This year, it has done a deal with new UK broadcaster BT Sports to show its Premier League matches, so it will have 38 matches live on Saturdays with 3pm kick-offs and 33 that kick-off at 12.45pm. Unlike our neighbours in Britain, we will be able to watch the likes of Luis Suarez, Robin Van Persie and Gareth Bale do their thing live on a Saturday afternoon. Setanta has also taken over the highlights package dropped by RTÉ after last season, with an evening show on Saturdays and Sundays.

Beyond the Premier League it holds rights to the likes of Brazilian and German football, as well as UFC. The company looks for sport with a strong Irish connection. Last night, the first French rugby match of the season featured Jonathan Sexton (inset below) playing for Racing Metro against Heineken Cup champions Toulon. The UFC features Irishman Conor McGregor.

Will that be enough, though, for Setanta to survive? It lost €1.4m in 2011 as sales fell by nearly a fifth compared with 2010. The business made €8m by selling its stake in a Canadian business in 2011, but doubts remain.

"There are two questions for Setanta," says TV3 chief executive David McRedmond. "Do they have enough of an offering to make someone who has Sky Sports subscribe to Setanta as well, and will they make a profit?

"They'll find out soon enough if they've got it right."

McRedmond's comments reflect wider concerns in the industry.

The subscription model is a hard one to make work, particularly in the small market that is Ireland. Traditionally, it is run as part of an overall package. BT's foray into sport is at least partly to use it as a marketing tool for its broadband service in the UK. Even Sky's sports and movie channels run alongside a host of free-to-air stations.

Setanta needs 75,000-plus customers to break even. To do that it will need to persuade people who already fork out €34 a month for Sky Sports to spend another €20. It is a difficult task.

Then again, the men at the top are used to difficult tasks. When Leonard Ryan and Mickey O'Rourke set the business up in 1990, it was to fill a very specific niche. BBC and ITV had declined to show Ireland's World Cup match against Holland in the UK. In response, the two men showed the match at a dance hall in west London and charged £10 (€11.75) admission. When more than 1,000 people arrived, they made a tidy profit.

The company quickly moved on to broadcasting Irish sporting events in the US and UK. By the 2000s, the two men had greater ambitions: the real prize lay in the UK and Ireland.

Setanta bought broadcast rights to American golf, English rugby union, horse racing, cricket, boxing and football, going toe-to-toe against Sky.

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Setanta went big on football, winning the rights to the Scottish Premier League (SPL) in 2004, and gained the rights to 46 Premier League matches from 2007 to 2010.

So far, so good. The problem was that Setanta UK borrowed millions of pounds to buy the rights to those matches. It needed a lot of customers, and didn't have them.

By 2009, the UK business collapsed with debts of around £250m. The Setanta story looked set to become a cautionary tale. There would, however, be a successful postscript.

Like most businesses that have operations in different countries, Setanta Sports was not a single company. The UK business was separate from the Irish one, which was separate from the Asian one and so on. When Setanta UK collapsed, the other businesses were unaffected.

Four years later, the business is a lot smaller than it was, but is surviving. Setanta Ireland employs 120 full-time staff in Dublin, and 45 freelancers who are used when business requires them.

Few companies survive after over-reaching the way Setanta Sports did during the boom, but, for the second time, it has become an unlikely success story.

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