Summary:

As the new season kicks off, three broadcasters control online Premier League rights. But each goes into the 2009/10 season knowing that the…

Michael Owen, Manchester United football club
photo: AP Images

As the new season kicks off, three broadcasters control online Premier League rights. But each goes into the 2009/10 season knowing that the race is on to secure digital rights for the three seasons after this…

BSkyB and ESPN have rights to live, linear broadcasts, which can be used to simulcast matches online as well as on TV. Sky exploits this through its subscription-only Sky Player (£17-a-month during its current promotion), but ESPN (NYSE: DIS) has made no such live online commitment so far, though EMEA chief Lynne Frank told me last month the company was considering a simulcast service.

Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) has the VOD highlights rights, which it pushes out through digital rights group Perform’s e-player, a free-to-view, ad-supported VOD widget showing brief EPL and Football League clips, hosted on a revenue-sharing basis on just about every major UK newspaper website.

But, while Sky and ESPN have only just inked their new TV deals for three seasons after 2009-10, online, mobile and international broadcasting rights are bid for separately to linear, TV rights — so online coverage of the Premiership, both live and on-demand, will again be up for grabs from 2010/11.

So what happens next? The Premier League wouldn’t answer our questions on who is in the running for the next digital rights auction, or even when bidding opens. But expect BSkyB (NYSE: BSY) and ESPN to have a strong interest, the latter incentivised by its 46-game live portfolio this season falling to just 23 for the three seasons after that. With less live TV, ESPN will have a chance to add VOD highlights to its existing ESPN360 VOD portal — though under the EPL’s current rights regime there will be no live online games. Lynne Frank, the Disney-owned network’s head of EMEA, told me last month she would “probably” look at acquiring digital-only rights if it would improve the business.

Add in to this the growing might of the clubs themselves. Clubs have the rights to show their own matches 24 hours after games have ended through their online VOD subscription services or cable TV channels. The BBC on the other hand must wait until midnight on the day after the game to show content online, so Sunday’s Match of the Day 2 show will only be on the iPlayer by Tuesday morning. Manchester City has broken ranks by offering its VOD highlights entirely for free as part of a global brand campaign, though for most major teams it’s a welcome revenue stream.

In reality, despite ESPN’s arrival on English shores, Sky is and will be the dominant force in football rights for some years to come. Rivals including BT (NYSE: BT) — which wants to serve full EPL subscription package to BT Vision users by the 2010-11 season (more on that from Indepedent.co.uk) — were pleased when Ofcom launched an investigation into Sky’s control of entertainment content and how it makes it available to other broadcasters. Sky has defended itself and is no doubt hoping a Conservative government, which has already laid out plans to essentially scrap Ofcom, will take a dim view of regulators setting companies’ wholesale content prices.

But like every entertainment content business, the biggest threat to football’s online earning potential is piracy. It’s not hard to find P2P sites and re-streamers to watch EPL games and the league estimates as many as 1.5 million tune in online to watch matches each weekend (via Guardian.co.uk). The league has served takedown threats to Justin.tv and is still involved in a lengthy US class action suit against YouTube.

It might solve the problem, but it’s unlikely the league will follow broadcasters in Germany or Norway in offering PPV live and on-demand action online.

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