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.
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.
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.