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Communique: The Limits of Sky

The leading lights from UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports’ channels are used to tackling the difficult questions around a weekend’s football action.

However, as part of pack of journalists last month, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Sky Sports’ new state-of-the-art studios in west London, and the questions posed were coming from us, meaning they were a lot closer to the bone.

We sat in silence as the channel’s producers of football, golf, rugby and motor sport coverage detailed how they were going to entrench Sky Sports’ position as the best in the sports media landscape.

One of Sky’s newest projects is the first TV channel dedicated to European football, Sky Sports 5. However, there’s a problem, which was highlighted after the presentations by a journalist sitting on my right: “How are you going to make this new channel you are launching appealing to your subscribers next year when you don’t have any [UEFA] Champions League
to show?”

He was referring to the elephant in the room: the emerging presence of BT Sport in the UK. Last year, BT Sport announced an exclusive £897-million, three-year deal to broadcast live Champions League and Europa League football, winning the rights for all 350 fixtures a season from 2015/16.

Sky’s team of producers responded by saying they would still be retaining all their Dutch, Spanish and Italian league coverage, as well as FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship qualifiers. But the press pack remained unconvinced – the Champions League has fast become one of the main football shows in town (see pages 16-17) and losing the rights is a huge blow for Sky.

The Champions League situation is just part of the wider problem BT Sport is causing Rupert Murdoch’s sports arm, with BT coming in and “shaking up the industry” – in their own words – by throwing huge sums of money to acquire rights to numerous major properties including the English Premier League and European club rugby.

Sky Sports are being asked to up their game and the wheels are already in motion. As well being given details about the new European football channel, we were given a tour around their new Sky Sports News HQ studio that featured a number of new innovations ranging from the impressive (an eight-screen social media desk to cover instant reaction to breaking news) to the unnecessary (an ‘investigation desk’ which is a TV screen with Investigation Desk inscribed on it).

The new team of 200 staff, 32 reporters and 20 presenters will look to keep viewers hooked on 24-hour news channel Sky Sports News HQ in a studio that is almost twice the size of its previous location and includes an 18 square-metre video and 11 different presenting positions.

The press trip also featured a presentation from Sky Sports’ head of digital, David Gibbs, who described how Sky Sports’ apps and website have been redesigned with additional personalisation. A Sky Sports News HQ ‘hub’ has also been launched, offering catch-up video clips and additional content alongside the live channel, breaking news notifications and trending articles.

But back to that awkward question, what is Sky going to do with BT?

“We will always have competition,” said Sky Sports head of production Steve Smith. “But analysis is going to be where we differentiate our coverage this year. Plus you never know what is coming round the corner. We just have to make sure we get ourselves into great shape for our customers.”

From a neutral’s perspective, it’s great to watch. Realistically, Sky Sports have had it too easy for too long, and the general business rule is that added competition will only benefit the football fan.

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