Mihir Bose: Why is Sky suddenly on the back foot?

The Premier League season is barely a week old and results for all the hoopla hardly count. But off the field we already have the makings of a fascinating duel between BT and Sky, both of whom have the rights to broadcast live matches. Now on the face of it this is the biggest mismatch ever.

Sky has the rights to most of the matches, it has built its entire broadcasting structure on the back of the Premier League and played a huge role in making the League what it is today. The Premier League, at least in this country, is synonymous with Sky. And, of course, back in 1992 its success in winning the rights was crucial to the very survival of the broadcaster. Since then it has seen off any number of competitors including ITV Digital and ESPN.

Yet the way it has reacted to the arrival of BT suggests that for the first time Sky is feeling a little nervous, if not apprehensive, that this time it faces a rival which is far removed from say, a Setanta, which it could just blow away. BT has made a lot of noise and proudly bragged that what it is offering is both revolutionary and new. That is what you would expect. In the last decade all the broadcasters that have taken on Sky have made similar noises, promised the earth, before withdrawing in a manner which suggested they could not stand the heat Sky generates.

So why is Sky acting so differently now? That it is behaving in a jumpy fashion cannot be doubted. You only had to see the Saturday Night Football on the first evening of the new season to realise that. Here was Sky, exclusive broadcaster of the Premier League for 20 years, suddenly deciding it needed a new format. And what was this new format? Why, have your presenter and Jamie Redknapp, who would clearly love to be David Beckham – and may well think he is – in front of a live studio audience.

Now you would have thought that the football match you are broadcasting provides all the live audience you need. You do not want another studio audience to supplement the spectators on the ground. And this was not quite as innovative as it seemed. For if my memory serves me right this was what Sky started off with when they introduced Monday night football way back in the inaugural year of the Premier League. Of course that original Monday Night Football, crafted by Andy Melvin and David Hill, legendary men in Sky’s history, also had dancing girls, jugglers and fire eaters. The show also let off fireworks which only stopped when one firework let off at the Dell, Southampton’s old ground, landed on a nearby petrol station.

I somehow doubt if this new Saturday night show is any danger of setting anybody alight. Indeed I must confess that I found its title SNF so confusing that for a moment I thought I had stumbled on to a programme on Scottish football. Then I saw Jamie Redknapp and realised that this could only be English soccer I was seeing.

True BT is a powerful company backed by resources that can take on Sky. And BT’s arrival as a football broadcaster is part of a wider plan for the company to innovate and seek new markets. All this means Sky is faced with the sort of competition it has never faced before.

However for Sky to be on the back foot in such a dramatic fashion, like a batsman caught in the headlights of a spin bowler he cannot read, suggests that the organisation may have lost some of the innovative and devil may care attitude it has always had and which has made this broadcaster so special.

And here it is worth recalling how Sky suddenly and, perhaps, to its own surprise got the original Premier League deal. As late as January 1992, just months before the start of the League it was by no means certain that Rupert Murdoch and his fellow Australian Sam Chisholm, who ran Sky, would bid. The major shareholders, especially Frank Barlow of Pearson, urged Chisholm to do so. He recalls: “All of Sky was basically Australian, and I’m not sure they realised the importance of soccer in the UK (at the time). I remember Sam saying, ‘We may not be able to afford the Premier League.’ I said, ‘If you are going to have a sports channel in the UK, you have got to have the Premier League.’ I think if we hadn’t got it, the chances are (BSkyB) would have failed again.”

Before committing himself to an independent bid, Murdoch asked Chisholm to sound out Greg Dyke, then head of ITV about making a joint offer. ITV were the favourites as they were in the box seat, being the exclusive rights holder for the old Football League matches. And they were heavily backed by the then ‘Big Five’ of Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton.

The two men met at the fashionable Langan’s Brasserie in London. Dyke still thought ITV was certain to win and had little time for Chisholm or his offer. Later he wrote: “Chisholm was an overweight, mouthy Australian who had been brought up as one of Kerry Packer’s henchmen and styled himself on Packer. He had been brought in by Murdoch to save the company. Over lunch he was pretty blunt. He told me that Rupert Murdoch had approved what he was about to say. ‘Mr Dyke, why don’t we get together to fuck these football clubs?’ “

Chisholm’s words only made Dyke conclude ITV were in the pole position and did not need Sky. He agreed only to think about the idea and get back to Chisholm in a few days When Chisholm called him a few days later, Dyke was still thinking. Chisholm decided to wait no longer.

It was another of English football’s great might-have-beens. Dyke passed up the chance to re-impose the television cartel that BBC and ITV had long operated against football. The rebuff induced Chisholm to invite the BBC to join the BSkyB bid, exploiting the Corporation’s limited resources and its dream of reviving Match Of The Day. Its director-general John Birt expressed the corporation’s position with uncharacteristic clarity: “The technology allows, for the first time, rights holders – soccer, movies, whatever, to extract more of the value of their product from the consumer. And the simple strategic analysis showed that it was impossible for the BBC to follow that. Our alternative strategy was to recognise that some of those sports would inevitably go to sports subscription services, and that’s the process which will continue in the future. We needed a strategy to protect the licence payer’s interests. What was it? It was to see high-quality recorded sport, in the case of soccer. So we thought we served the licence fee payer’s interest by negotiating to maintain Match Of The Day.”

This alliance with BBC was crucial to Sky’s success for throughout that original bidding war there was an extraordinary reverence for Match Of The Day among the Premier League chairmen. Many of them had grown up with a BBC Saturday night entertainment schedule which ran as follows: Duchess of Duke Street, Kojak, Match Of The Day. For these chairmen Match Of The Day was an institution.

ITV monopoly of League football had effectively killed Match of the Day. For many chairmen going with Sky meant a return of the Match of the Day highlights on Saturday night. This they felt would neatly balance having live matches on satellite-only coverage.

Sky having won the rights revolutionised televised football. Among its many innovations was showing the score and the time on the screen during the match, something that no broadcaster had thought of doing before. The BBC having had a virtual monopoly had not felt the need to innovate. Now Sky in its reaction to BT is behaving a bit like the old BBC.

Maybe having been unchallenged kings of the televised sports world realm for so long it has lost its sense of adventure. But it needs to rediscover that, get back on the front foot. Because if BT is a threat then Sky must also be aware that waiting in the wings is Al Jazeera. It may or may not have bid for the rights last time round. But its keenness for televised football cannot be doubted. And who is to say it will not form an alliance with BT at some stage?

Then what would Sky offer: more late night chats with Jamie Redknapp in front of a live audience? That may look pretty but it would hardly be in the great innovative traditions of the broadcaster.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99.