BT’s acquisition of ESPN’s UK channels

The announcement on Monday that BT has agreed a deal to obtain ESPN’s UK and Ireland television channels business, including ESPN America, creates some uncertainty as to what MLB coverage will be available in the UK.

What do we know?

The ESPN UK channel was on borrowed time as soon as ESPN lost the rights to Premier League football to BT from the 2013/14 season. As ESPN America is often purchased as part of a package with that channel, it was expected that changes would be coming in July or August for existing subscribers.

Monday’s announcement confirmed that ESPN are exiting the UK TV landscape by selling their channels and associated sport rights to BT. BT Sports will offer “at least one ESPN-branded channel” as part of their new service; however their commitment to providing “the best of US sports” currently only mentions “NCAA College Basketball, NCAA College Football and NASCA”.

The omission of MLB has to be seen as deliberate. It would be odd to forget it or to deem it unworthy of a mention considering it’s arguably ESPN America’s main premier U.S. sports offering at present (the NBA season ends in June – i.e. before BT take over – so can be left to one side for our purposes here).

Additionally, the press release states that the “non-UK ESPN America TV businesses” are being wound down by ESPN. ESPN America currently is broadcast “across more than 40 countries and nearly 19 million households across Europe”, as their press releases always state. Those existing European subscribers will be concerned by the plans and, if MLB isn’t carried by BT in the UK, then the potential option for us to be able to subscribe to a separate ESPN America channel will not exist.

The immediate impact

It’s all speculation from here until definite news is announced.  It may be that ESPN America subscribers in the UK simply will get the same service as normal until the end of July before then needing to switch over to the new BT Sports package where MLB ultimately will be covered.

The most immediate concern would be that the omission of MLB in the BT/ESPN America press release is due to ESPN America not actually having the rights to the coming 2013 season as yet.

I suspect most of us were assuming that they already had the rights, particularly as they are previewing the upcoming season, their website includes mention of 2013 Opening Day and they are broadcasting the World Baseball Classic this March.

Two years ago, ESPN and MLB announced “a multi-year extension of their current European television rights agreement”. The length of that extension was never published, as far as I’m aware, and it’s possible that it only covered two years (‘multi-year’ literally being more than one) and there isn’t yet an official deal in place for 2013.

That would be fine if it’s just a case of finalizing the details, especially as that would provide a simple explanation for MLB not being included in the BT/ESPN press release.  It’s probably still safe to assume that MLB will be on ESPN America for the start of the season, but there is an element of doubt to factor in if you were planning to become a new subscriber.

July/August 2013

The new BT Sports service will launch in late July, early August. If ESPN America ceases to exist at that point – and it looks like that will be the case – MLB’s final inclusion or exclusion from the BT Sports portfolio will become a pressing issue.

If it’s included then we’ll need to consider the pricing and availability of the BT Sports channels. There’s an expectation that these channels will be available across the main providers, but the devil will be in the detail as to exactly what is available and at what cost.

BT’s substantial investment in sports is being driven by their broader business plan to attract customers to their TV-broadband-phone service as part of their ongoing battle with Sky and Virgin Media. It’s surely reasonable to assume that you’ll get a better deal on these channels with BT than with their competitors.

If MLB isn’t part of the BT service, because ESPN didn’t have the rights to the 2013 season after all, or ESPN did have them but either BT didn’t want them or ESPN wanted to keep hold of them, we’ll either be looking at an alternative or stuck in limbo.

Looking ahead

One important point to throw into the discussion is that at the end of August 2012, MLB announced a series of major new TV contracts, including one with ESPN. The eight-year, $5.6bn contract begins in 2014 and whilst it predominantly relates to coverage in North America, it also includes international rights, something that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig stressed at the time. Those international rights were reported to cover “Europe, Latin America, Caribbean, Middle East, Africa, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands and on Cruise Ships”.

If ESPN doesn’t definitely have the rights to the 2013 season as yet, it looks as though they definitely do have them from 2014 onwards.

Quite what ESPN’s strategy would be if ESPN America is scrapped remains to be seen. Depending on the contract terms, there are many ways in which ESPN could exploit those rights without having their own channel in each territory.  The European coverage is a tiny proportion of that overall $5.6bn contract and it’s not exactly going to be a priority for the MLB Office, but at the same time they will be expecting ESPN to put their ‘brand’ (a horrible term, I know) in front of fans and ESPN aren’t likely to have the rights and then just to sit on them.

Baseball is not the easiest sport for TV schedulers as the game duration can vary from 2 hours to 4 or more; however it’s not simply baseball-fan-bias that makes me describe MLB as a marquee U.S. sport. It’s a great option for a new group of sports channels, providing lots of hours of live sport at a minimal cost. As BT Sports are going to run at least one ESPN-branded channel, presumably including shows such as ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, it would make sense for live MLB coverage to be part of it.

All of which brings us back to the curious omission of MLB from the press release. Hopefully there is a simple, straight forward reason for this and it’s actually nothing to worry about.

The alternative is that that BT didn’t feel MLB fitted into their ambitious plans. In the long run it would be better for baseball fans that BT passes rather than provides a greatly scaled-down schedule; however, where would the TV coverage come from otherwise?

Not for the first time, baseball fans in the UK are left with unanswered questions.

11 thoughts on “BT’s acquisition of ESPN’s UK channels

  1. Clive Barker

    Great article Matt.

    I do think that MLB not being shown in the UK would be a step back in time, Channel 5? It would be a real loss to lose ESPN America but it does seem to have been going downhill for a while and the UK misses out on certain sports anyway I.e. NHL

    Whilst I hope it stays or MLB gets picked up elsewhere, I am glad I invested in MLB.TV. Anyway, I guess we now just have to wait and see.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Matt Smith Post author

      Thanks Clive. Yes, makes the MLBTV service all the more essential if fans have got the broadband capability to use it.

  2. peter ramsay

    This is not good news i thought espn america had the rights for this season. And i hope if this deal with bt wont mean the end of mlb coverage in the uk. Thanks for the info Matt am glad i bought my mlb audio.

      1. mike

        hi matt
        I would think the only espn channel that bt would use would be Espn america.It would not make sense to spend big money for football,rugby,tennis etc and put on a non Bt branded channel.It would then need to have mlb to show in the summer as college sports would only be on sept – march.At least that would be my hope.But it does seem strange that Espn are willing to give up on 19 million viewers in europe you would think they had more viewers in Germany and the nordic region then the uk so you can only hope Bt have some big plans.


  3. Pingback: ESPN America MLB update | BaseballGB

  4. keith

    i am disgusted with espn after years of following MLB on Ch 5 with only 2 games a week it was great to move up to 11 games a week even if you didnt watch all of them but , now its down to 7 or so which is fine . however the thought of no MLB on our Televisions is a disgrace . i was a massive fan of espn and i seen them as a major player in the future . now i see us MLB fans as TV Gypsies moving from channel to channel !!! i have got MLB TV for the last 4 seasons but not this year as the reception on my laptop is poor . i live near Wembley Stadium and my laptop is top notch yet the quality is dodgy . besides its 2013 and our across the pond cousins watch SOCCER on TV so why cant we have the same rights regarding MLB .

  5. Andy

    Hi Matt
    I’ve just had an e-mail from Virgin Media, on the TIVo box.
    They say from Aug 1st ESPN,ESPN HD,ESPN America and ESPN Classic channels will no longer be available on Virgin TV. ESPN America and ESPN Classic won’t be available from any TV provider.
    I swap to Virgin Media, because channel 5 stopped showing MLB. now it looks like history is repeating it’s self. So it’s looking like no MLB on UK tv’s. why end Aug 1st and at the end of the season. I love the World Series.
    It’s all greed at the end of the day, these megger rich Company’s acting like little children, they just will not share.
    Where am I going to get my baseball fix.

    All the best baseball fans.

  6. BobbyJohn

    I just looked at the Sky channel line-up for August 1st forward. On the ESPN channel (which will be part of the BT Sports package on Sky) – 417 for HD, 433 for regular def – there will be much less baseball coverage than there was on ESPN America. As a baseball fan, I can’t see signing up for BT Sports on Sky. Most of ESPN seems now to be devoted to X Games. I’m going to upgrade my broadband and move completely to, first through my iPad, then maybe through Apple TV.


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