As battle lines are about to be drawn between Europe’s elite in the newly-restructured Champions Cup this weekend for the knock-out stages, there is an equally fierce and fascinating off-field tussle in the offing between Sky Sports and BT.
After a series of protracted negotiations, the re-branded competition was eventually given the go-ahead in April and after the two broadcasting heavyweights reached an agreement to end the complex dispute over European club rugby’s future, their increasingly fraught ratings tussle is set to intensify.
The pair are no strangers to each other. BT have steadily begun to encroach on Sky’s territory since their emergence into the British market a little over a year ago and are currently investing over £500 million a year in an attempt to eat into their rivals’ market share.
They’ve forked out £738m for a slice of the Premier League rights and having paid a further £897m for the Champions League from 2015 onwards (as well as a host of European leagues), they’ve made their intentions clear.
For now, however, they remain a long way behind Sky’s football coverage, largely because of the latter’s dominance of the Premier League market. But, by their own admission, rugby is their strongest suit and they’ve identified it as a key battlefield between themselves and Sky.
BT laid their cards on the table from the outset when, having just emerged in the British market, stumped up £152m to lay claim to the Aviva Premiership rights at the start of last season. They’ve since invested heavily and the enlisting of Brian O’Driscoll to spearhead their coverage is testament to that.
The recently-retired Ireland centre said he had joined the broadcaster “because I’ve been impressed by their new and fresh approach to rugby coverage.”
Their approach is far from conventional and may not appeal to some viewers but the need to distinguish themselves from Sky’s time-honoured methods is doubtlessly part of their stratagem.
Tune into Friday evening’s opening game from the Stoop and you’ll be sure to see Matt Dawson scurrying from one side of the pitch to the other hoping to catch a word with an unsuspecting player as they warm-up or Lawrence Dallaglio attempting to re-enact his glory days at the back of a ruck in the confines of their London studio.
The agreement sees both the Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup broadcast jointly with the pool matches to be shared equally between the broadcasters. On the face of it, such an arrangement will come at a considerable cost to supporters who, unlike previous years, must now subscribe to both channels in order to watch their province from the comfort of their sitting room.
However, there is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition. Sky are all too aware of the need to raise their own lofty standards. If you’ve watched any of their rugby coverage over the past decade than you will know they hit the nail on the head more often than not. Their coverage of the Pro12 this season has not disappointed.
If anything, the battle of the pundits will be worth tuning in for alone.
A few appearances on front of the cameras apart, O’Driscoll is the new-kid-on-the-block and it will be fascinating to see whether he can make the transition into the pundits chair after a glittering career. Regardless, he will add considerable weight to BT’s coverage as they attempt to boost their ratings.
It’s worth noting that, as part of the deal, BT had first pick on fixtures involving the English teams. There is little surprise then that they’ve opted to show Harlequins, Saracens and Bath on the opening weekend. They do, however, have Ulster’s trip to Welford Road and Leinster’s clash with Wasps, both at prime time slots on Saturday and Sunday.
After BT pulled off the signing of O’Driscoll, Sky have responded in kind by recruiting former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson to their ranks. His former team-mate Will Greenwood is a staple component of any rugby broadcast on Sky whether he’s in the studio or the commentary gantry while Horgan offers a tactical insight into the modern intricacies of the game that may not be in the repertoire of less knowledgeable analysts.
BT have a lot of ground to make-up on their adversaries but having invested heavily in getting to this point, they’ll be determined to ruffle Sky’s feathers. It adds another intriguing dimension to the opening weekend of the European Champions Cup.