Farewell BT Sport; you were never truly loved and TNT Sports must be different to survive

John Nicholson
Humphrey, Balotelli, Fabregas

So farewell BT Sport; you lost two billion pounds broadcasting football and couldn’t drum up an audience of over two million for any Premier League, Champions League or Europa League game that was behind a paywall. You’re handing the keys back on that huge studio complex near the Olympic Village in London at the end of the year, you’re axing shows such as that imitation of Soccer Saturday. Jake Humphreys is off to do those things that Jake does, and on July 18, you’re turning into TNT Sports, a channel owned by the Warner Bros. and Discovery conglomeration.

In time the new owners intend to merge BT Sport and Eurosport (which they also own) into one TNT Sports entity to be sold into the market alongside something called ‘an entertainment package’ which does sound like a euphemism for a sex toy.

BT has been looking to get out of broadcasting for some time. Sports rights were initially acquired to try and expand broadband subscriptions and prevent decay. Whether it worked in that respect is a bit opaque but I think we can assume that if it was working, they wouldn’t be jumping ship. They massively overpaid for football rights just to get in the game, which is how they ended up losing two billion pounds, I guess.

That they monopolised the Champions League and Europa League and Europa Conference League coverage worked out badly for everyone. It cost them a small fortune to secure those rights but people just wouldn’t pay the money to watch it in significant enough numbers. It was sometimes obvious on CL nights that few were watching simply by how many people would respond to tweets about games as they unfolded.

From being at the centre of the game when on ITV and broadcasting to eight to 12 million people – the sort of audience that still exists and was achieved for the free-to-air CL final – it was pushed out to the football margins.

Their Premier League coverage always lagged behind Sky in popularity, games between less popular teams had under 300,000 viewers and there were even rumours that it dipped below 150,000 at times. Typically less than 25% of their games got over one million peak audience. It’s okay but not enough to pay off those sky-high rights fees.

It’s ironic then that actually the broadcaster produced some really good shows, none better than the European Football Show which was one of the first to introduce the idea that getting expert journalists to broadcast could be more entertaining and enlightening than getting an ex-pro. Why they ditched it was never really explained to its admittedly niche but loyal audience. Its stripped down coverage of Serie A has also been enjoyable. The excellent relegation play-off between Spezia and Verona on Sunday night being just one example.

It put together beautifully shot sporting films. It did gorgeous packages in the build-up to games. Enjoyably, it allowed Danny Baker and Danny Kelly back onto the TV. But those who watched its football coverage were often, as far as it’s possible to tell, unsatisfied. But the ceaseless criticism of pundits and presenters is a rather tedious default when compared to the elevated level of work on, for example, 5live; it just wasn’t anywhere near as interesting often enough, despite having the room to stretch out. Having a host who was a divisive figure amongst the potential audience was not the best starting point.

That said, there was a moment when they had the Saturday 5.30pm live game when they hit a groove, making a very modern show which harvested wee video clips from fans coming out of games, and Jake allowed the pundits time to expand on a topic. It worked well. Briefly it looked like it was the future. But history shows it was just a blip. Maybe it found itself stuck between the mainstream and the niche in its approach and fell between two stools.

So what will TNT Sports be like? Initially, bosses are saying there will be little change. That would be disappointing. It will fail if that is the case.

I would hope they have paid for the rights to use AC/DC’s ‘TNT’ as a promo, for a start. But more broadly, the answer is, no-one knows. While they inherit the rights packages BT Sport had bought, beyond that, everything is a bit vague. Laura Woods is thought likely to take over as their main presenter. She was so good on ITV during the World Cup and is hotly tipped for a transfer. Reshmin Chowdhury should also keep her presenting gig for the channel.

Experts in the broadcasting industry wonder exactly what their acquisition of the Premier League, Europa League and Champions League rights will provide, given BT Sport couldn’t make it work financially. There is some doubt that they can extract much profit directly from it, at least in the short to medium term. Long term, in order to make good money, they will either have to grow the subscriber base markedly, charge more for subs, or cut costs. Possibly all three.

With the next Champions League rights bidding due in the autumn, are they going to spend big to retain them? Is it worth paying at least $1.2 million for something that relatively few people are watching right now? BT Sport has proven that the more subscriptions you have to buy to watch football, the less football you’ll watch, unless you’re the sort of football obsessive who will watch Scottish Junior football on BBC Alba in Gaelic if you have to. Ahem.

The $6.3 billion BT Sport paid last time for its share of the Premier League rights seems ludicrously high and if it wasn’t financially sustainable for BT Sport, what can TNT Sports do to drive revenues upwards?

There is a radical idea, and I think, very good idea, to show everything on a free-to-air basis for three years on a TV channel and YouTube channel. It would deliver some very big audiences that would be eight or ten times the numbers BT Sport could get on pay TV. It could slice and dice it all up into a thousand clips and packages to drive ad income on social media, as well as pull big advertising income on TV.

This seems an excellent, modern idea. It would have a large and attractive audience to advertise into, attracting far more revenue than can be garnered from subscriptions. Right now, BT Sport actually has ad-free gaps in its commercial breaks, so unattractive is it to advertisers, so that doesn’t bode well for the new channel unless it takes a radically different approach. After three free years and having established a large audience, they can assess whether it’s worth charging for some or all of it.

BT Sport’s period as a sports broadcaster proved how hard it is to make money showing football. An industry insider once told me they believed that Sky has never made any profit from purely showing football. Obviously, they rely on it pumping up income from other areas of the business and as a marketing and virility symbol. But if you want football to give you identifiable profits – which most seem to think Warner Bros Discovery absolutely do – it is a challenging market if rights costs don’t significantly drop.

Regardless of the model they decide to follow, the BT Sport coverage is crying out for a shake-up, needs fresh ideas, fresh voices and some zing put into how it’s delivered.

They need a keen Statman Dave-type figure to bring statistical analysis to each game. While they put the stats on screen, it’s such an important part of the game now, it needs an expert to unpack it all in an interesting and digestible way.

Experts are the way to go. People who know stuff and can communicate it. Why wouldn’t that be the default? Why not have a commentators’ summit every week? Get all of the freelancers together in the room to discuss the games. Commentators know more than most. They have to, it’s their job. Their deep knowledge is not drawn on or exploited often enough outside of live broadcasts.

Why not put a camera and microphone onto the referee? Make it an opt-in feed for the viewer on the understanding we might hear some industrial language, or maybe we wouldn’t. TV is football’s paymaster, the FA and UEFA wouldn’t object.

Buy Ally McCoist. People would flock to hear the boy fae Bellshill.

There needs to be a complete overhaul of the BT Sport punditocracy to freshen it all up and bring us new voices. There are plenty of interesting and articulate journalists and ex-pros. Who knew an industrial footballer like Glenn Murray would be such a good beta-male pundit? Rob Green and Matt Upson have interesting hinterlands and have brought class to the gig on the radio. Jonathan Woodgate, who wins the best accent in the media award, and can be very funny, likewise. Get Conor Coady on and you’d never have any dead air. The boy can talk for England.

The likes of Karen Carney, Karen Bardsley, Izzy Christiansen, Ellen White and many others from the women’s game have allowed radio and TV broadcasts to paint with the full rainbow. We want more of this on TNT Sports and less of Paul Scholes doing his imitation of a mill worker walking through the rain in a Lowry painting.

They’ve got a very good commentator in Darren Fletcher. Adding Pien Meulensteen to the roster would be an excellent idea at this point. Laura Woods will bring more warmth, empathy, humour and bonhomie to proceedings and they’ve already got the excellent Seema Jaswal on the books, so not all is lost. But change must come.

Time to put yer Maccas, Michaels, Stevies, Owens, Robbies and Glenns out to pasture. TNT Sports has a chance to reboot how they do the gig and make it more compulsive and exciting – something worth paying for. This must also mean not having former referees on the show. They just add another layer of subjective opinion to what are already subjective opinions about subjective rulings by the VAR or on-pitch referee. Presenters, pundits and commentators should and often do know the laws of the game anyway.

If they simply keep doing the same old things, going to the same old people for the same old same old, it will fail. It will not attract a big enough audience. It needs to be new and it needs to be different. They also have to contend with the financial hegemonies which guarantee virtually the same clubs will compete for honours every season, thus taking away the jeopardy for neutrals and possibly turning off a substantial part of the neutral audience. That is already in the mix, of course, and may explain why BT Sport did so poorly in balancing the books. Why pay good money for something increasingly predictable is a question many will increasingly ask themselves. The new owners need to overcome that.

So ta-ra BT Sport. You were never taken to the football bosom of the nation the way BBC, ITV or even Sky have been. It always felt like a holiday romance and was never true love.

But it’s hello to TNT Sports. There is just one thing that you need to know if you want to make a profit; don’t be like your predecessor.

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