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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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BT this week fired another salvo in its campaign to disrupt the UK’s TV market by announcing plans to offer its subscribers free or very cheap access to all of next season’s UEFA Champions League and Europa League soccer matches. For BT, it’s primarily a means to grow its broadband business, but it also represents a new kind of investment in the future of sport – and not just in terms of the £897m the operator paid for rights.

With such money coming in, you’d think sports leagues need not worry about much else. But like every form of media, sport needs an audience too. The problem with putting content behind the paywall is that it inevitably limits the number of fans – both new and existing – that sports can win and keep. Boxing, motor racing, and rugby have, for example, all seen dramatic falls in viewing figures since selling rights to pay TV.

This risk is even greater in the Internet age. Traditional sports face growing competition for younger viewers from newer franchises – such as extreme sports, mixed martial arts, and e-sports – that are more adept at using social media, branded content, and over-the-top (OTT) distribution to connect and engage with fans. Pirate live-streaming services will also continue to grow in popularity and sophistication, in part due to how expensive and difficult premium sport is to access via pay TV.

None of these factors poses an existential threat to traditional sports, but rights holders would do well to seek a better balance between revenues and reach. BT’s approach is just one example of how sports TV can be made more accessible and affordable. Rights holders should seek out more: in a world with ever-greater competition for audiences, they can’t afford to just take the pay-TV money and run.

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