England match is “watershed” for sport on web

England’s World Cup football qualifier against Ukraine on Saturday will be streamed to subscribing computer users, and not shown live on television, after it emerged that the BBC had offered only one-third of its original bid for the rights.

The rights became available after the collapse earlier of this year of satellite broadcaster Setanta, who had won the original bidding with an offer of £5.5 million.

The bulk of Setanta’s rights have been acquired by ESPN. But with no other broadcasters bidding and the Ukraine game now a “dead rubber” following unbeaten England’s early qualification for next year’s finals in South Africa, the BBC offered a mere £1.5 million for the rights when they became available once more.

That has prompted the agency handling the rights for the Ukrainian FA to opt for the live streaming internet option, hoping for more than 300,000 subscribers, who will be expected to pay between £5 and £12 to view online, mainly through the websites of national newspapers.

The company providing the service has signed up partners, including The Sun, The Times, News of the World, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Star, Independent, Virgin Media and Orange, to market the match through their websites on a revenue-share basis.

“In six months’ or a year’s time this will be ordinary business,” said Philipp Grothe, chief executive of Kentaro, the sports rights agency handling the game for Ukraine.

“This is a watershed moment in the sale of sports rights and the coverage of sport online,” said Steven Downes, the secretary of the SJA and the former deputy editor of

“There will be some initial objections to it – people are naturally price resistant and distrust new technologies – and it may not be something we see used very often with football. But if an online sports market can be demonstrated with football, it will help overcome any consumer resistance to broadcasting other sports online.”

The FA, in particular, is likely to be keeping a close eye on the success of the experiment as it attempts to fill a £75 million hole in its budget caused by the collapse of Setanta.

The timing of the experiment is interesting in view of the forthcoming government review of listed events, due to be delivered by former FA executive director David Davies within weeks. ITV and the BBC both argued in their submissions that all home nation qualifiers, home and away, should be added to the list.

More than 80 per cent of UK households now have access to a high-speed internet connection, although there are concerns that the country’s broadband connections will be able to cope with the anticipated demand. For that reason, the suppliers are limiting to 1 million the maximum number of subscribers.

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“This is an important match but not a critical match. If this was critical to England qualifying we’d be having a bit more of an emotional debate about this, but as it is we are having more of an analytical debate about the future of television,” said Andrew Croker, from Perform, the digital sport specialists who are running the project.

Sven Goran Eriksson, the former England manager who will join presenter James Richardson in the studio before the match, said that showing matches live on the web was commonplace in his native Sweden. “It’s different, of course, but you have to ask yourself what was the alternative? And it must be better than not seeing it anywhere, I think.”

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