BT on the back foot over European breakaway
October 4, 2013
Marc Watson: 'We are comfortable we didn't cause the issues that are there' © Getty Images
BT has been forced to defend its position in the ongoing row over the future of the Heineken Cup with Marc Watson, the company's chief executive, insisting the broadcaster has not contributed to plans for leading clubs to form a breakaway competition.
"We are comfortable we didn't cause the issues that are there," Watson told the Times. "It is presented as us having a role in the problems with that tournament. Those problems clearly pre-existed."
Starting the fire
BT have come under fire after paying £152 million for rights to broadcast rugby but, crucially, the deal they did excluded the Heineken Cup. Rights to a then non-existent European competition were sold to BT by the Premiership clubs, immediately sparking speculation that a breakaway was on the cards. And that is exactly what has happened.
Clearly, the BT money gave the clubs the nudge they wanted to make their move but Watson insisted the broadcaster has remained on the sidelines.
"We are not involved in the conversations. We have deliberately wanted to step back. We have said what we would like, we have set out the investment we are prepared to make and we hope we will be able to be involved. I really hope they grab this opportunity.
"The English-French tournament we will support, if it goes ahead, and we very much hope that if it does, then others [from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy] will then join.
"We have a long-term interest in rugby and that interest is not going to go away. If we get the opportunity to broadcast European rugby we will grasp it with both hands."
Although actual subscription figures are confidential, Watson said the early signs were promising for a sport he believed was undervalued. "Viewing numbers in English rugby were falling; they were flat in European rugby at a time when other sports had been growing. They have now started to rise.
"Our peak is an average of 150,000 per match compared to 134,000 for Sky Sports last season."
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