ITV Sport’s support is thin on the ground

The launch of ITV Sport is expected to boost subscriptions to ITV Digital, but with its limited offering can it achieve its goal?

The jury is out on whether ITV is about to score an own goal when it comes to sport.

Sitting on the sidelines, media buyers and advertisers, sports’ commentators and, more importantly, fans are about to pass judgment not only on the network’s scheduling plans for the Barclaycard Premiership highlights – packaged as a programme called The Premiership – but also the launch of the digital ITV Sport Channel (ITV Sport).

Tactics and past form will come to the fore as key players ITV, BSkyB and the BBC, as well as rated outsider Channel 4, take each other on.

The first challenge of the season will be this Saturday’s (August 11) launch of ITV Sport. Adidas, Barclaycard, Bass’ Carling, Honda and Pizza Hut have already signed up to advertise on ITV Sport. But as a premier digital channel, it is the number of subscribers prepared to pay for its content that will determine the success of ITV Sport.

ITV Sport is available to more than 1 million ITV Digital subscribers and a further 2.3 million NTL TV subscribers for &£6.99 a month. Telewest is also understood to be in discussions with ITV over carrying the channel.

But Universal McCann head of TV buying Richard Oliver says: “I think what ITV Sport is going to lack in the early stages is a mass audience. Coverage is limited by not being on Sky Digital.”

ITV Sport’s most serious competition is from BSkyB sports channels, Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3. These channels are available on all platforms, including Sky Digital, which has more than 5.5 million subscribers. BSkyB claims that of these subscribers more than 5 million are signed up to packages that include Sky Sports’ channels, and that four-fifths are Sky Digital customers. Sky Digital customers can access the three sports channels, as well as Sky Sports Extra and Sky Sports News, from &£26 a month.

So far ITV Digital is refusing to reveal the number of subscribers to ITV Sport. But the launch of the channel is part of a much longer game – to attract subscribers to ITV Digital. Owners Carlton Communications and Granada have set a break-even target of 1.7 million subscribers in 2003/4, by which time they will have spent &£1.1bn on the channel.

An ITV Digital spokesman says: “Our customers have the option of seeing all of Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3 coverage, in addition to ITV Sport.”

ITV Digital also hopes pay-per-view football – with both ITV Digital and BSkyB offering season passes to 40 live Barclaycard Premiership matches – will pay dividends.

Whether live coverage of the Uefa Champions League, the rights to which cost &£80m, and the Nationwide League and the Worthington Cup, which together cost &£315m, will be incentive enough for fans to subscribe to ITV Sport remains to be seen.

At last month’s BSkyB annual results press briefing, chief executive Tony Ball said: “You wouldn’t build a sports channel based just on football. And you can’t make money from second division football.”

Referring to BSkyB’s coverage of the Nationwide League, he said: “BSkyB was paying &£20m a season and no one was watching it.”

MediaVest deputy joint managing director Nick Theakstone says: “ITV Sport doesn’t have anything particularly outstanding to offer, unless you support a Nationwide team. And with ITV’s Premiership highlights, football is all over TV like a rash.”

CIA joint managing director Tim Neligan agrees: “As a digital product ITV Sport doesn’t carry enough other sports.”

At its launch, ITV Sport will carry the Champion’s Cup Snooker Tournament and ATP Master’s Tennis Live. ITV has bought the rights to the Tour de France and the Rugby World Cup 2003 and 2007, plus other rights that will be shared with ITV Sport.

But ITV’s rights to Formula One Grand Prix coverage and to The Premiership highlights do not extend to ITV Sport. And rights are key to a sports channel’s success.

According to Ball, BSkyB, which has the live rights to the Premiership, has been “stealthily” extending existing rights. Channel 4 has also carved out a sporting niche in racing and cricket. And the BBC still has the live rights to some key sporting events such as The Grand National and Wimbledon.

ITV started investing in sports rights at a time when advertising revenues were high. But, says Neligan, the current downturn could put pressure on programming budgets.

An ITV spokesman denies this will be the case: “Our budget has increased this year and will be increasing next year [April 2002/2003].”

Neligan asks: “Because there is so much football, will advertisers get what they want with ITV and Sky?”

Theakstone adds: “If the price is right advertisers will buy air time. But young male adult audiences are difficult to find. “

ITV Sport, which snatched the rights to Premiership highlights from the BBC for &£183m, will be competing for advertisers with the main ITV channel. The channel will rebrand as ITV1 this weekend (August 11).

While ITV1 promises mass audiences, it may have miscalculated who controls the TV remote at 7pm on Saturday night, when the highlights programme The Premiership has been scheduled. If, as many industry insiders suspect, it is the woman of the house, ITV could find its deviation from a diet of light entertainment works to the advantage of BBC1.

Like fans at an FA Cup final, ITV executives will themselves be on the edge of their seats until the final whistle at the end of the season.

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