Extra Time: “We Hate Setanta”

By Steve Williams

First published June 2009

On Saturday 30 May 2009, Setanta Sports covered the FA Cup Final. Undoubtedly its most high profile broadcast to date, the network pulled out all the stops, with live coverage beginning at 9am, football TV legends Saint and Greavsie signed up for a number of special inserts, all the channel’s regular faces appearing and commentator Jon Champion even posting on Twitter during the match. Yet within a month, Setanta was no more.

The story of the rise and fall of Setanta Sports is, at heart, a familiar one. Back in 2001, the ITV Sport Channel attempted to make inroads into the pay TV market dominated by Sky Sports, only to collapse in financial disarray after just one season. Was Setanta’s failure further confirmation there’s only room for one player in the world of premium sport, or was their downfall partly their own fault?

As OTT has detailed before, Setanta Sports had been around in one form or another for nearly two decades, first screening Irish sports for ex-pats in pubs and clubs, then expanding into fully fledged TV channels in the US and the Republic of Ireland. In 2004, it made its first foray into covering British football for a British audience with its purchase of the Scottish Premier League. Given the huge number of Celtic and Rangers fans – not to mention the tiny number of seats available for away fans at most other SPL clubs – and the fact Setanta had exclusive live rights, the coverage was fairly successful. However they knew that to become a major player throughout the UK, they needed English football. The failure of ITV Sport had proven, though, that there was no point in offering simply Sky’s leftovers – lower division or cup football – as there wasn’t enough of it and it didn’t have a wide enough audience. The Premier League, however, was a different matter.

The fact that Setanta were able to cover the Premier League at all was more or less down to the European Union. The EU decided that allowing Sky to grab all the live rights to the competition was anti-competitive and didn’t provide the consumer with enough choice. Hence the demand that, in future rights deals, the live games were split into packages and no one broadcaster could buy all of them. Such was the size of the packages, however, there was no way any terrestrial channel could afford or justify the purchase of any of them, so Setanta were more or less the only possible alternative to Sky, and promptly won two of the six packages on offer, giving them the rights to 46 live matches a season from 2007/08.

The arrival of live Premier League football marked the moment when Setanta moved from being a niche broadcaster to a major player in television sport. The channel initially marketed itself as a cut-price alternative to Sky Sports, uniquely available on digital terrestrial television, while cable customers got the best deal of all. As Virgin Media, who ran the UK’s cable system, were in the midst of a dispute with Sky who had removed some of their channels from the Virgin platform (though not Sky Sports), Richard Branson’s company arranged to make Setanta available for free to all the subscribers to its largest platform.

Of course, Setanta was also available on digital satellite, but not as part of the Sky package, meaning customers had to contact Setanta directly to subscribe. Sadly the channel’s customer services never really appeared to be up to the job, and complaints about non-existent pictures and inflexible cancellation policies were to dog the broadcaster for the rest of its life.

Setanta warmed up for the Premier League in the summer of 2007 with a stack of pre-season friendlies involving virtually every team in the league, and the coverage began in earnest on Saturday 11 August 2007 with live coverage of Aston Villa vs Liverpool, live from Villa Park. Setanta’s team was headed by former ITV host Angus Scott, who was joined by a set of pundits including Steve McManaman, Les Ferdinand, Tim Sherwood and Emmanuel Petit, all of whom talked up their recent top flight experience, as a contrast to the veteran pundits on the other channels. Former Chelsea and Scotland star Craig Burley was the regular co-commentator, while the main commentator was ITV’s Jon Champion, who had agreed a deal to divide his time between the two broadcasters. When Champion wasn’t available, microphone duties were taken by Ian Crocker, who’d joined Setanta a few years previously from Sky as the main SPL commentator, and jobbing freelancer Jim Proudfoot, who’d commentated for umpteen channels including the short-lived and controversial pay per view outfit u>direct.

Behind the scenes, Setanta’s personnel had mostly moved over from the BBC, ITV and Sky, and certainly there was enough experience in front of and behind the camera to ensure the match coverage was perfectly professional. There were obviously some teething troubles, with Emmanuel Petit’s uncertain grasp of the English language meaning he was soon phased out (a shame for Petit who, a few weeks before the coverage began, spent a thankless day in a Tesco superstore in Richmond-upon-Thames promoting Setanta-enabled Freeview boxes), while post-match interviewer Alex Hayes, a former print journalist, was nowhere near as fluent with a microphone as he was a keyboard, and was dropped after a few tongue-tied appearances.

As well as Premier League football from north and south of the border, and some cheap schedule-filling imports from Europe, there was more live football on Setanta. Trevor East, formerly of Sky and now Setanta’s Director of Sport, said, “Football is key to the pay television market, If we’re going to make it a success, we have to show football fans that we’re committed to the game at all levels.” Setanta initially approached the Football League and asked if they’d be willing to sell them the rights to Leagues One and Two (the erstwhile third and fourth divisions), but they were already in a partnership with Sky and wished to keep all three divisions on one channel. So Setanta approached the Conference, the top level of non-league football.

Previously the Conference’s TV coverage had consisted of half a dozen matches a season on Sky, but on Setanta there was now at least one live match a week – by some distance its most detailed coverage ever. Setanta tried hard and, in return for their investment, placed cameras everywhere they could – in the dressing rooms, in the dug-outs – while the managers were called upon to explain their tactics to the viewers and presenter Rebecca Lowe spent the whole 90 minutes racing around the ground interviewing the managers, the players, the fans and anyone else she could grab.

Presented with plenty of enthusiasm, the coverage garnered a loyal audience, but by its very nature a very small and limited one. In May 2008 they even broadcast a match from the Conference South – the sixth tier of professional football – between Hampton & Richmond and Eastbourne, surely the most obscure football match ever broadcast on British television, only of interest to a handful of Eastbourne fans who couldn’t attend and a tiny band of obsessive football anoraks who were happy just to watch a ball being kicked regardless of who was kicking it.

Yet it was the Premier League that remained Setanta’s big draw. However, despite the EU’s intentions, their service was always going to be second-rate. The idea of splitting coverage between two broadcasters was a sound one, but it depended on every Premier League match being of equal quality. Clearly, it wasn’t, and an encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool was always going to be more attractive than one between Bolton and Wigan. Sky continued to have first choice rights, while Setanta had the second pick of matches some weekends and the third pick every weekend, which meant Sky would always get the biggest games. Sure, quotas on the number of times each side could be picked meant that Setanta would get to show the big teams in action, but normally in unexceptional clashes against mid-table opposition.

Setanta also suffered thanks to their prescribed timeslots, which saw them screen games on Saturday teatimes and Monday nights. The police were often choosy about which games took place on Saturday teatimes, given the potential for fans drinking all day and causing trouble, while European commitments meant the big teams were often unavailable to play on Mondays.

Still Setanta were on air and broadcasting Premier League football and, for a while, things looked good. Even better news came when, in association with ITV, they then landed rights to England and FA Cup matches, beating off competition from existing rightsholders Sky and the BBC, from the 2008/09 season. A gleeful Setanta spokesperson pointed out this would now mean they’d be broadcasting live football every weekend, something Sky couldn’t do.

Then there was further expansion. Virgin had been surprised that, when the Sky channels had been removed from their platform, the largest number of complaints had not been about the disappearance of Sky One or Sky News, but Sky Sports News, and so approached Setanta about offering its own sports news channel. With ITN producing the output, Setanta Sports News was rushed to air in November 2007, although it could be argued that it had been brought to our screens far too early, with its ugly screen layout and patchy reportage failing to convince. The nadir came in December 2007 when Motherwell player Phil O’Donnell collapsed and died during a match. With the exclusive rights to the Scottish Premier League, Setanta surely seemed well-placed to give the story extensive coverage, only for them to virtually ignore it and continue talking about the English Premier League, while Sky Sports News ran continuous reports. For some, this seemed to sum up Setanta’s desperate efforts to establish itself as an alternative to Sky, rather than simply concentrate on providing a good service for fans of its existing rights.

Come August 2008, Setanta Sports was boasting that they now offered more football than ever before, with the England and FA Cup rights newly arrived alongside the Premier League. Support programming was also beefed up a bit, thanks to a move from their Broom Cupboard-esque existing studio, which meant magazine programmes could feature little other than talking heads, to a more luxurious and spacious facility, and James Richardson, the witty, urbane former host of Channel 4′s Italian football coverage, bringing his unique brand of humour to the channel.

Yet, SPL and Conference aside, Setanta didn’t have first choice rights in any of their football contracts. Sky still had this for the Premier League, while ITV gained the exclusive live rights to England’s home competitive matches and the first pick FA Cup tie in each round. Setanta only got England friendlies and second choice in the FA Cup, neither of which would be likely to pull in massive audiences. Indeed, when it came to the FA Cup, it was literally pot luck as to what you’d get – an unattractive draw or the unexpected early exit of a big club would leave the broadcasters with thin gruel indeed. The deal saw five live televised matches from the third round onwards, with ITV having first and fourth pick, and Setanta second, third and fifth, but it could be argued there were never really five must-see ties – the fifth pick in the third round in 2009 being Spurs vs Wigan, not quite the type of match that gets potential subscribers rushing to the phone. Unless their team was involved, fans seemed happy enough with the live matches and highlights shows on ITV to give them all the FA Cup action they needed.

One other contract Setanta signed did provide them with exclusive premium content. Away World Cup qualifiers continued to be sold individually by the home team, and in previous years, the likes of Channel 5 (with Poland vs England) and u>direct (Finland vs England) had managed to act quick enough to grab a few. Setanta therefore succeeded in getting hold of all of England’s away qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, along with a fair number involving the other home nations.

The first fruit of this was England’s qualifier in Andorra in September 2008, which was live and exclusive only on Setanta. However the channel had failed to do a deal with a terrestrial broadcaster for highlights, which meant many fans couldn’t see the game, and their non-appearance became a major story. This was somewhat unfair on Setanta as, in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, Sky Sports had purchased the rights to most of England’s qualifiers and not offered highlights rights either, but as there were many more Sky subscribers than Setanta customers, this had less impact. Setanta claimed no channel had offered them a sensible price for highlights, but the BBC and ITV countered that Setanta were asking too much and it was unviable. No deal was made before the Andorra match, and during the game the England fans at the ground, clearly fed up that their mates couldn’t tune in, started chanting “We hate Setanta” – which was clearly picked up by the pitchside microphones, much to the channel’s embarrassment.

Still no deal was in place for their next qualifier against Croatia four days later, and when England won 4-1, the clamour for terrestrial highlights grew even louder. Finally, Setanta did a deal with ITV for highlights 24 hours later, and for the rest of their away qualifiers, but, along with the continual complaints about customer service, the episode had given the impression of Setantaas a greedy organisation interested in nothing but ripping off football fans.

For those who could see the channel, the coverage they provided was perfectly fine – Angus Scott was a proficient host, free of the oiliness some accused Sky’s Richard Keys of possessing, while Jon Champion brought both authority and humour to the commentary box. James Richardson continued to entertain while the non-league action was welcomed by fans of the Conference clubs, who were thrilled with the enthusiasm and comprehensive coverage they brought (as well as Rebecca Lowe’s charms).

Yet Setanta continued to expand aggressively and look for more rights, going on a further spending spree. Hoping to expand their audience beyond football fans, Magners League rugby and PGA Tour Golf both came to Setanta, though the main attractions in both sports remained under lock and key on other channels. They also purchased the Indian Premier League in cricket, which was something of a novelty, but with many of the matches being played during weekday afternoons, this would never bring in large audiences.

For those looking for the date the tide turned for Setanta, you could cite December 2008. The channel signed a new contract for Guinness Premiership rugby which gave them the first choice rights to the competition, with 43 live matches a season. However, Sky Sports also won the rights to broadcast live games, so rugby fans, who already had Sky for the Heineken Cup, England games and much else, were invited to subscribe to Setanta so they could watch the Guinness Premiership – despite the fact that the Guinness Premiership was also still live on Sky. Who needed to see any more? This seemed to sum up the Setanta approach – going for quantity of coverage rather than quality.

A month later, the bids for the Premier League rights from 2010 were due in. When the results were known, Setanta had kept hold of the rights to one of their packages – but lost the other to Sky Sports. It was reported that Setanta had paid £159 million for their one package, compared to the £392 million they’d paid for two packages last time; a 19% reduction in its bid. This seemed to be a fatal miscalculation, with most suggesting there was no way to run a viable subscription business on just 23 matches a season, less than one a week. Sure enough, rumours started to resurface that Setanta were suffering financial difficulties and looking for new investors – yet at the height of the recession, few seemed to be forthcoming.

Setanta continued until the end of the season and its FA Cup Final coverage was by some distance the most comprehensive in the competition’s existence, with nine hours of continuous broadcasting and enjoying much critical acclaim. Yet it pulled in less than 200,000 viewers – yes, it was simulcast on ITV1, but the previous year Sky Sports had pulled in over three times as much even though it was simulcast on the BBC. The following Saturday, Setanta screened England’s World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan, at the last minute having to also cover the match as it was decided the coverage by Kazakh television was too poor to broadcast.

By now, Setanta’s financial state was of great concern. All of their contracts demanded the money was paid in instalments throughout the life of the deal, and alarm bells began to ring when they failed to pay the Scottish Premier League £3 million on the due date. Setanta promised to do so as soon as possible, and the League reimbursed the teams out of their own coffers. Then a more pressing concern was the £10 million it owed the Premier League, which also seemed unlikely to be forthcoming. Eventually, the Premier League set a deadline of Friday 19 June to pay, or lose the rights. The day arrived… and the cash didn’t. Setanta’s rights were therefore up for grabs.

Over the weekend it was announced Setanta were considering their options, but with no Premier League football the channel seemed completely doomed. Potential rescue bids were rumoured, and for a time it did appear there was a chance they would survive – although even if they did, it seemed likely it would be in a much diminished form. Yet on Tuesday 23 June 2009, it was all over. A takeover could have covered the fees it owed the sports bodies, but not the £50 million it was rumoured to owe the Inland Revenue. At 6pm, the Setanta Sports News presenters said their goodbyes, the programmes on Setanta Sports 1 and 2 ended, and screens went to black. Setanta Sports continued in Ireland and the USA, but their futures appeared very much in doubt, given much of their programming was shared with the now defunct UK service.

Many put forward the argument that Setanta Sports could never compete with Sky Sports, but the question is whether there was a need for them to do so anyway. A service offering 46 Premier League matches and the Scottish Premier League, marketed at fans who couldn’t bear to miss any match, could have been a modest success. However Setanta continued to splash the cash on sports rights of limited value – with the US Open and Ryder Cup on Sky, and the British Open on the BBC, how many golf fans would be that bothered about the middling PGA Tour events on Setanta? Not many. So why waste the money?

American sports giant ESPN ended up buying the rights to Setanta’s Premier League matches and intend to launch their own channel before the start of the 2009/10 season – their first major excursion onto British screens. Certainly, the giant Disney-backed operation has much deeper pockets than Setanta and, you’d assume, a more hard-nosed approach to the business of sports rights. It remains to be seen, though, whether the UK will ever be able to support two premium sports broadcasters, or whether Sky Sports will continue to see off all comers.