There’s been lots of anguish in various forums and corners of social media over BT’s decision to drop UFC and NBA, as well as some – I think very mistaken – suggestions that the news pours doubt on the future of the whole BT Sport venture.
Sport provides BT with exclusive premium content which helped it reverse the long-running loss of broadband customers and, importantly, bring growth to its TV base – though some of that success in TV has fallen back recently.
When BT nabbed the rights to UFC five years ago it was a new entrant into the UK pay-TV sports market where one dominant player already had most of the top tier sports signed up.
UFC was relatively cheap, added variety to the schedule and enjoyed a vocal fanbase. It was a good addition to the rugby and football rights BT Sports had won, as well as the rights deals the channel inherited as part of its ESPN deal.
But BT is now an established player with a bigger portfolio of rights, including some high profile wins – such as its Champions League, boxing and Australian cricket deals – under its belt, as well as years of viewing and audience data which helps it measure the value any individual sport brings to the business.
When the cost of keeping any particular competition rises above what it adds to the service’s appeal and profitability, it’s going to be jettisoned.
Or, as BT Consumer boss Marc Allera put it: “at the wrong price, everything is expendable.”
But people suggesting that ditching a given sport means BT is walking away from TV in general or sports broadcasting specifically are seriously overreaching.
Its recently announced new apps for smart TVs and connected devices, as well as the wholesale deal it struck with Sky, means BT’s content will be more accessible than ever before, potentially allowing it to grow audiences and revenue.
Of course, there are plenty of people who already have access to these services on their smart TV or through an array of different devices plugged into their TV set.
But, as TV analyst Nigel Walley of Decipher likes to tell his audiences, most viewers just want a simple life where they don’t have to remember which device and which app they watched a given show on.
Aggregating all the major content providers onto a single box which also offers a universal search feature allows BT to serve this demand, broadening the appeal of its TV service to audiences who don’t want to sit up until 3am to watch a UFC fight and, if it gets its marketing right, delivering more of the growth that pleases investors.