IP&TV News talks to Simon Green, Head of BT Sport, in this special report
When I ask Simon Green (head of BT Sport), if, when the channel launched back in August, they knew they were going to make that bid for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League rights (and overnight turn from an interesting curiosity into a credible aspirant to Sky’s sports broadcasting crown), I fancy that I can hear him crack a slight smile on the other end of the line.
“We knew the rights were coming up soon…” he says, sounding a little resistant to reveal battle-plans even after the battle has taken place. “But my main worry was – would we be ready when they did?”
It’s awfully easy to forget that, less than two years ago, BT Sport didn’t exist.
That, though, was before BT looked into the business case, tested the strategy, and to its surprise, realised it could make (in Green’s words) “some pretty eye watering numbers” if it sought to sell broadband off the back of sports.
Fast forward: BT Sport not only very much exists, but there can be little doubt that the telco-turned-broadcaster has provided one of the stories of 2013.
Besides its UEFA and selected Premier League rights, BT Sport now boasts an 80,000 square-foot production hub at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford (which features the two biggest sports studios in Europe). And last month viewing figures hit the 1.1 million mark.
BT’s outlay on its sports subsidiary, meanwhile, has been in excess of a cool billion.
The day before our conversation, I had seen Simon speak at the Digital TV World Summit. He had an air of understated intensity as he addressed an attentive audience concerning his captaincy of this remarkable venture.
Next morning, Simon reiterates some of the themes he had presented the preceding day, namely how BT Sport had made it its priority – in the course of its breakneck ascension – to become “credible, clean and responsible.”
In order to succeed, BT Sport had to aim for the fast, aggressive assumption of a brand identity – not to just become a repository for some expensively procured football. Simon stresses that he wants a casual viewer, hopping from channel to channel, to see strong, original content on BT Sport regardless of the day or the time.
“If people land on your channel at primetime Thursday night and see a rugby re-run their expectations of your brand drops. Recently we purchased the NBA – a big, big value brand. Doesn’t necessarily deliver big viewing numbers but it’s a very important brand for us.”
Correspondingly, the channel is well stocked with sports personalities and other public figures, from football stars such as David Ginola and Steve McManaman to the likes of Clare Balding and Danny Baker.
It’s all part of the same philosophy of growing up extremely quickly – missing out any sort of broadcasting infancy and presenting the world with a fully-developed brand with an highly desirable product in double quick time.
At the Digital TV World Summit, Simon had placed great emphasis on the channel“giving sport back to the fans” being a more than a marketing line, stressing that it was its commitment to freely available football that both distinguished its launch (with BT broadband customers receiving BT Sport for free), and also its UEFA bid.
“We were able to go to UEFA with a proposition that we would be able to offer matches that were free-to-air alongside those behind the paywall,” he emphasised. “It’s a very important thing for us to make sport accessible.”
But when I ask him about the long-term plans for free viewing there is the slightest hint of irritation. Perfectly easy to understand, when you remember that Sky long ago erected the tallest possible paywall in front of the “people’s game.”
“In the short and medium term it’s certainly our intention,” says Green. “But I can’t give any guarantees about what we’ll ultimately decide to do with our pay-TV product.”
Which cuts to the heart of the matter, really. Football might happen to be peculiarly entwined with the nation’s emotions, but it’s also a product, and BT is a business (as, unmistakably, is Sky).
Having said this, anyone who’s watched the channel can appreciate that a genuine enthusiasm for sport lies behind its programming.
There has been a lot of publicity from BT Sport concerning how, in difficult times, sport is something that can bring people together, and I finish our conversation by asking him what – with all that in mind – BT Sport’s philosophy is towards broadcasting sport.
Simon likes to think before he speaks, answering every question with the utmost care and attention. This time he is silent a little bit longer.
“What I always tell people here – and maybe it is something that has an effect on what we do – is this. Sport is something people watch for enjoyment. It’s what they do for their leisure; it’s what they choose to spend their money on. But it’s also something that, at times, becomes extremely, extremely serious, when what is happening on that pitch couldn’t be more important to the people who are watching. And that’s something I tell people here never, ever to forget.”