ESPN (NYSE: DIS) will enhance and expand its online sports sites as part of its launch as a UK sports broadcaster in August. The Disney-owned network, which today released details of its new UK channel, wants to use its English Premier League rights to mount a wider assault on the European sports market both on TV and online as EMEA MD Lynne Frank told paidContent:UK in an interview.
— Online publishing push: Even though it hasn’t had any UK rights until now, ESPN has built a series of news sites based on Anglo-centric sports including ESPNSoccernet, ESPNCricinfo and ESPNScrum — all of which have been rebranded to include ESPN in their titles. Will there be a renewed push to improve and extend those sites now? “You’ll see a couple of things from us: we will look to enhance our football website with more features, hopefully clips, and make the product more robust.” The second part of that strategy: now that ESPN has “stepped up the game” with its channel launch, “you’ll see us doing more [online] in the general sports areas, and not just in the verticals that you’ve seen us do today.”
— Rights shackles: Thanks to the way EPL rights are packaged — essentially, live TV with separate online highlights rights — ESPN won’t be able to recreate its multi-layered online VOD strategy that US sports fans enjoy through ESPN360. Are those rights holding back digital innovation? Frank says “it’s tough to say: the Premier League offers other rights, including digital only and mobile rights to media companies. You’ve seen some take-up of that with the consumer to date, but the big ticket is still on TV. Franks points out that not all ESPN’s TV content is licensed for online and “that’s what we’ll see here in the UK and Europe: there will be some TV rights where we are also able to acquire the broadband rights to, in some cases we won’t.”
— EPL VOD highlights: ESPN could bid for online, highlights rights — they are currently held by Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) and distributed by Perform through its online e-player. But does it want to? “We’ll look at anything that will enhance our product and makes business sense. Will we have a look at it? Probably, but whether we’ll be in the game, it’s too early for me to comment.” The same goes for bidding for more international rights to broadcast the EPL across the world — ESPN already shows EPL matches in Asia through a JV with News Corp (NYSE: NWS). UPDATE: Sure enough, Mediaweek reports that ESPN has won the rights to broadcast the EPL to views in the Republic of Ireland.
— Live simulcast? Will ESPN’s UK TV channel be simulcast online, as Sky does via ita Sky Player and as Setanta did with iSetanta? “We do have simulcast rights, but we’re currently looking at what our digital proposition is.”
— TV channel specifics: The channel — simply called “ESPN” — goes live on August 3 will show 46 EPL games next season and 23 each of the next three seasons. It’s going to be HD and will include footy plus all the US sports previously shown on ESPN America (formerly North American Sports Network). Sky customers with a Sky Sport subscription will pay an extra £9 a month to receive it while those without will pay £12, and it’s free to customers on the “ultimate” premium package. Sky’s internal sales house Sky Media will sell advertising. Talks are ongoing with other carriers, thought to include Virgin Media and *BT* Vision.