BT has spent billions on its still relatively new BT Sport and now faces the prospect of shelling out even more as the Premier League, for which it holds two packages against Sky’s seven, rolls the dice again at the end of this year. The likes of Amazon and Netflix may also bid.
It also broadcasts all Premiership rugby and will cover this winter’s Ashes series in Australia. Some might argue that BT does sport better these days than it does telecoms.
But BT’s high profile CEO Gavin Patterson is in the doghouse: belatedly unearthing a massive accounting fraud in Italy and losing a trench war with regulator Ofcom over BT Openreach’s dire performance, one it was never likely to win. Openreach runs nearly all the UK’s telecoms infrastructure.
Profits are down sharply as government business has dried up but complaints about its service – EE which it bought a couple of years ago seems to get worse – are going in the opposite direction. Is BT Sport a monumental and expensive distraction?
The ostensible point of it was to hook in customers to landline, broadband, mobile and broadcast deals: the fabled “quadruple play.” But BT Sport costs extra and UK consumers, even sports fans, are fed up with endless extra charges. One recent Spurs Champion’s League game, which BT also broadcasts, brought in just 92,000 viewers – about what Spurs can squeeze into temporary ground Wembley.
BT has a new chairman in Jan Du Plessis, a career chairman who’s still in charge at Rio Tinto Zinc and, so they say, a tough cookie. Du Plessis’ job is to improve returns to shareholders and keep Ofcom and the Government off BT’s back.
Company execs who make forays into sport are often accused of giving way to fandom. It’s much more fun to go to a Premier League match than it is a convention of telecom engineers.
Du Plessis, and Patterson of course, assuming he’s still there, have a big decision to make. Is sport delivering the goods and can they afford it, even if it is?
Du Plessis is unlikely to close down BT Sport (which also makes a sizeable contribution to Champions League presenter Gary Lineker’s wallet) but he may well be interested in selling it. Amazon, Netflix, even Apple, Facebook and Google would surely be interested.