Lights, camera … time for action as Sky and BT gear up for another nine months of covering the Premier League. A fresh season means fresh excitement, yet there will also be a level of concern at the headquarters of both broadcasters, and for similar reasons – the loss of a big-name pundit allied to an acceptance that they simply must deliver ahead of arguably the biggest shake-up in domestic football coverage for a generation.
The 2018-19 campaign is the last to fall under the current Premier League TV deal, which was signed off in February 2015 and saw Sky and BT maintain their grip on live rights in the UK. That changed in June, however, when Amazon strode on to the scene and won the rights to show 20 midweek fixtures as part of the deal for 2019-22. For the first time ever, the self-styled “greatest league in the world” will officially be available via an online-only streaming service in the UK, which for all the subsequent bullishness displayed by Sky and BT, is good news for neither. They have lost control of the market and could lose customers, especially if other companies follow Amazon’s lead.
Hence the need for both broadcasters to yet again deliver Premier League coverage which, by and large, is as slick as it is faultless. The likelihood is that they will do so, but it certainly does not help Sky’s cause that they have lost Thierry Henry just as the Frenchman was establishing himself as a strong punditry presence, not to mention someone able to secure interviews with football heavyweights such as Pep Guardiola, Paul Pogba and Harry Kane. For BT, meanwhile, there is the blow of losing not one but two leading voices in Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, with the pair, like Henry, deciding that they would rather deliver instructions on a training field than opinions in a studio.
At least for Sky the loss of one leading pundit is offset by the return of another in the shape of Jamie Carragher. The former defender has been off our screens since March when he was suspended for spitting towards a 14-year-old Manchester United supporter and her father while driving. The incident was caught on camera by the father and threatened to end Carragher’s broadcasting career entirely. But after a spell on the sidelines he is back and, after some likely initial awkwardness, is sure to re-establish himself as a forthright and enlightening voice, and never more so than on Monday Night Football, where the 40-year-old had formed a must-watch double act with Gary Neville.
Sky’s first MNF of the season is on 20 August when they will show Crystal Palace v Liverpool from Selhurst Park. As has been the case for the previous two seasons they will broadcast 126 live Premier League matches.
BT Sport will again show 42 live games, the vast majority of them in their established Saturday evening slot, starting with Wolverhampton Wanderers v Everton on Saturday, and that will be followed by their own successful, pundit-driven show: Premier League Tonight. Hosted by Jake Humphrey, it is a mix of post-match analysis, social media engagement and wide-ranging discussion, with the last of those elements the principal reason the program has secured wider attention. That was particularly the case last November when, after analysing Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Anfield, Gerrard, Lampard and Rio Ferdinand spoke about how club rivalries had played a part in England failing to live up to expectations during their time with the national team.
Their revelations were as honest as they were engrossing, leading to debates and reflection in mainstream and social media. According to Simon Green, the head of BT Sport, the discussion may also have played a part in England’s run to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia. “It’s been suggested to me that what they [Gerrard, Lampard and Ferdinand] said had a direct effect on the FA in regards to the setup of the England squad going into major competitions,” Green told the Guardian. “Of course I can’t say for certain that the discussion contributed directly to England’s success at the World Cup but, equally, it was noticeable how together the squad appeared. There was no sign of internal politics.”
Green intends to “maintain a relationship” with Gerrard and Lampard as they forge ahead with their respective managerial careers so it is possible the pair will be seen on BT Sport again this season. But they will not be regular faces and, at the time of writing, Green is not able to say who, if anyone, will replace them. “As is the case ahead of every season, we’re trying to come up with fresh ideas for what we can do,” he said. “We’re always striving for our coverage to be fresher and more dynamic.”
No doubt that is also the case at Sky as the big beasts of Premier League broadcasting prepare for a season like no other – it is a case of watch this space.-The Guardian