Wednesday 24 June ~
Setanta's presenters were tearful when they announced the closure of the station's UK operations yesterday. It is thought that some of the 200 staff laid off might be re-engaged by ESPN who acquired Setanta's two Premier League rights packages for 2009-10. Many viewers will hope that punditry roles won't be offered to the likes of Craig Burley, Steve McManaman and Tim Sherwood, all of whom were distinguished by being just a bit worse than their equivalents on Sky.
But even if their presentation of football turns out not to be an improvement on what is offered elsewhere, ESPN's arrival as a Premier League broadcaster is generally being seen as a good thing. For the main reason why you only need to look at how Setanta's disappearance was covered in the two daily papers owned by Sky's parent company, News Corporation.
The Times, the "newspaper of record", mentions it in one column in its business section in the middle of the paper while the Sun doesn't refer to Setanta at all, even though the lack of meaningful football news in mid-summer prompted it to fill two complete pages with transfer gossip. Yet they had been happy to write about Setanta before. During last season both papers joined their print rivals in reporting on various complaints that had been made about the channel, including alleged difficulties that viewers had when trying to cancel subscriptions. Setanta imploded because it got a little more than halfway towards a break-even figure of 1.9 million subscribers. ESPN, by contrast, is a subsidiary of the Disney Corporation which also owns ABC, one of the three main national networks in the US. Like Sky and wholly unlike Setanta, it can afford for parts of its media empire to run at a loss if necessary.
Now that ESPN has become a Premier League broadcaster they can be expected to bid against Sky for more packages when the next TV deal is concluded in 2013, which ought to ensure that football rights will be sold for premium prices. The European Commission's anti-monopoly regulations now require that at least one other broadcaster has some live football coverage, Sky having had the Premier League to itself in the previous TV deal. As was the case with Setanta, this means that anyone wanting to watch matches in all the various time slots next season will have to take a subscription to ESPN, likely to be £10 per month, in addition to whatever they pay to Sky. But live Premier League coverage will always oblige fans to pay up for as long as terrestrial channels are priced out of the market.
Government intervention could ensure some live football is made available on free to air channels but the present administration, and its likely successor, won't enforce such a thing – no one wants to fall foul of Rupert Murdoch. It will be interesting to see what sort of coverage ESPN's football broadcasts get in the Murdoch press next season – you can expect to have to search for it. Rob Weston