Setanta Sports Ceases Broadcasting in Great Britain

By Kevin Hilton

The Great Britain operation of Irish broadcaster Setanta Sports went into administration Tuesday June 23 and ceased broadcasting, only days after losing the rights to cover both the English and Scottish Premier League football championships. Setanta continues to broadcast in Ireland and internationally, but its parent company and Irish subsidiaries are in receivership, with accountancy and auditing firm Deloitte considering approaches from potential buyers.

Speculation has been rife over the past few weeks as Setanta admitted that it was unable to pay back the sums it owes for EPL and SPL broadcast packages. A lifeline was offered on June 12 by Len Blavatnik of Access Industries, who proposed a £20 million bailout for a 51% stake in the company. Media group Endemol, the power behind reality TV show Big Brother, was also said to be interested in taking a share.

Neither came off, with Friday June 19 set as the deadline for payment to the EPL. The Premier League issued a statement saying that Setanta “had been unable to meet its obligations” and so took the expected step of terminating the licence agreement for live coverage of 46 matches during the 2009-10 season. These were put on the market, while Setanta took the weekend to consider its position.

On Monday June 22, ESPN was announced as the new owner of the two packages for 2009-10 and the sole package of 23 games a season from 2010 to ‘13. “Premier League football is one of the world’s most sought-after sports properties,” says Russell Wolff, EVP/managing director of ESPN International. “This move demonstrates our commitment to British sports fans and our ongoing commitment to delivering football to fans around the world across a variety of media.” ESPN is arranging to have its EPL broadcasts available on a number of pay-TV outlets and has entered into an agreement with Sky to reach commercial (pubs and sports bars) and residential customers in the UK.

Later on Monday, the SPL announced that it had been notified that Setanta could not make its outstanding payment of £3 million. “Setanta has been unable to meet our extended deadline, and, in terms of the notice previously issued, our British broadcasting rights for season 2009-10 and beyond revert to us,” says Lex Gold, executive chairman of the SPL. “We are now actively engaging in the process of selling our domestic broadcasting rights for next season and beyond.” Industry rumours have both ESPN and Sky as potential bidders for the rights.

The perhaps inevitable next move came June 23 with the announcement that Setanta Sport Limited and Setanta Transmissions had been put into administration and that the GB service would go off-air.

Representatives from Deloitte are acting as administrators, and its Irish operation has been appointed receiver to handle the affairs of Setanta Sport Holdings Limited, Setanta Media Holdings Limited, Setanta Media Limited, and Setanta Sport (PPV) Limited.

Says Deloitte’s Neville Kahn, “After a huge effort by the Setanta board, management, and its backers, it has not been possible to save the GB business, which will be wound down in due course. This means it will shortly cease broadcasting to its customers in Great Britain. However, the international and Ireland businesses continue to trade on-air whilst we are in discussions with parties to take on those businesses as going concerns.” He adds that, “regrettably,” approximately 200 employees will be made redundant at the GB operation. The company has also suspended subscription collections from GB customers.

The collapse of Setanta GB is likely to have a knock-on effect in the UK broadcasting market. News broadcaster ITN has been providing editorial services and facilities to Setanta Sports News for 18 months, but the channel went off-air at 18.00 BST June 23. Says an ITN spokesperson, “We are extremely disappointed by the news that Setanta has gone into administration and will cease trading.

“Thanks to the dedication of a hugely talented team,” the spokesperson continues, “the channel consistently generated a lively, engaging schedule popular with sports fans across the country. We will be consulting with affected staff about the implications of today’s decision and, where possible, will seek to redeploy people within ITN.”

Sports broadcasting relies on outside broadcast contractors, and Setanta had been working with 021 Television for its SPL coverage and Arena Television for the EPL. A spokeswoman for 021 Television says no comment is being made at this time, but Arena Managing Director Richard Yeowart, says, “Setanta represents about 20% of our group turnover and doesn’t owe us much money, so we can pull through without too much difficulty” and ensure freelancers and subcontractors are paid promptly.”

Yeowart says he is dealing with new tenders from other broadcasters and so is not overly concerned about the future. “But it is a hell of shame to see such a good production team flounder.”

Setanta’s troubles have been put down to over-expansion in the last three years, particularly to paying large sums for rights in an attempt to extend its reach and challenge the dominance of Sky. Says Setanta Chairman Sir Robin Miller, “Setanta and its financial backers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds buying UK and international sports rights. Unfortunately, in a difficult and highly competitive market, it has not been possible to find sufficient additional funds in the time available to ensure survival.”