BT Sport are on a mission.
Having launched on August 1st, 2013, the 20-month old channel has ruffled the feathers of main competitor Sky Sports with a high-profile Champions League rights victory and increased dose of Premier League football. The next time you see an English team in Europe, you'll be watching it with them.
Grant Best, the executive director of programming and creative who was hired back in 2012, is spearheading the charge from the gargantuan offices in Stratford alongside Simon Green, Head of BT Sport, and Jamie Hindhaugh, Chief Operating Officer. The imposing building near the Olympic Stadium might look like an airport-hanger, but it houses studios that have changed the game when it comes to sports broadcasting in the UK.
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Having spent time at Sky Sports and ESPN, Best has approached BT Sport having worked with two television giants either side of the pond, and he’s used those past experiences to mould what’s on offer to the paying public.
"I joined BT Sport in November 2012 and when I was hired I came with a vision of creating something that was an alternative to Sky Sports and the other broadcasters,” he tells us whilst sipping coffee in a canteen full of workmen, bustling around a building site that will eventually become a state-of-the-art home for a major TV player.
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"I was very lucky to work with two of the biggest broadcasters in the world. Both ESPN and Sky do things very well, and I brought those experiences into my role at BT Sport. It’s only natural to be compared to a broadcaster like Sky but I had a very clear idea of what we could be ourselves."
Best is a busy man. He’s apologetic for his late arrival, having run across the reception floor to meet us. After a hectic Friday morning spent in a variety of planning meetings, a 30-minute interview offers time for reflection on what’s already been achieved.
As well as big football rights deals, BT Sport have invested heavily in their rugby coverage and built a portfolio that can genuinely stand up to the Sky ‘beast’ that Best was so involved in previously.
“Any great sports channel is built on their rights, but you've got to know what you want to be. We wanted to be more open and we wanted to be warm. We want to make the viewer feel like they are a part of what we're doing.
“That was set out from the moment we built our studio, which was one open creative space. That’s where the vast amount of our programming has been generated - quality shows like Rugby Tonight, Football Tonight, Boxing Tonight, Fletch & Sav, The European Football Show, The Football’s On, The Clare Balding Show. All these and more have become the glue of the channel.
"People come in for live rights, but if they see another show around those live rights, then they know there is more to the channel than just repeats. We've tried to build something that has personality and identity, and I think we have done that.”
Whilst Best is proud of the achievements to-date, he can’t help but turn his attention to what lies ahead. There is no resting on laurels despite major rights deals tying the channel to football until 2019 and rugby until 2021. Indeed, a new four-year contract extension was signed with Premiership Rugby only last week.
Live rights secured
Visions of a rights team in a US sport-style ‘war room’ spring to mind as the discussion turns to what else might be in the pipeline. The answer, it seems, is a lot.
"We find ourselves today looking ahead towards 2019 knowing we've got the Premier League, exclusive Champions League and Europa League, Aviva Premiership rugby, our share of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup rugby. Then there is Moto GP, women's tennis, UFC, our relationship with ESPN,” adds Best, seemingly struggling to contain his excitement.
"We have a rights team and I think so far they've done pretty well. We’re looking forward to going into a second term with the Premier League rights, and we definitely see that as a success for us at this point in time.
"We're pleased with the number of Premier League games we have, aligning that with the exclusive Champions League and Europa League, as well as the SPFL, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A. That's a really strong portfolio of football. I'm involved in rights discussions and there are clearly ongoing discussions about what else might become available in the next two or three years.
"BT Sport will be amongst the bidding for those rights because we want to be a great sports network. And, give credit to Sky, they have a fantastic range of sports on their seven channels, including the news service. It's a pretty big beast over there and we want to expand our range, of course.”
The Sky question
There is little surprise that conversation continues to come back to Sky. Best spent over 15 years at the corporation during two spells, and they are the market leader in the field. Past challengers - notably Setanta and ESPN UK - have fallen by the wayside when going toe-to-toe with Rupert Murdoch’s monster.
That doesn’t stop Best from believing there is space for at least two major broadcasters - maybe more - to work alongside each other though. Competition means an improved and varied product for the consumer, and that is what BT Sport are providing like nobody else before them.
"I do think there are room for two major broadcasters of the Premier League. There could be two broadcasters for the Champions League, although we obviously hold the exclusive rights in the UK right now, which is fantastic for us. But I do think there is room.
"If you look across the pond to America, you’ve got NBC, ESPN, Fox, CBS - the major sports are split across four major networks. Will the Premier League ever get to that, I’m not sure, but if it keeps doing what it’s doing maybe they will need more broadcasters for coverage.
“You’re looking at very big numbers when it comes to buying football television rights. These figures (over £5billion) are a sign that it's a massive product. It's important to Sky Sports, who spent over £4billion, and it's important to BT Sport. We’re pleased to be a partner working with the Premier League for the next three or four years now - others opted against that.
"I just think the cost is a sign of how important these rights are to the broadcasters. Fans enjoy the coverage and the Premier League, and at the minute that's what it costs to have it on the channel."
BT Sport’s offering of top flight English football goes up from 38 to 42 from 2016, whilst the £897million, exclusive three-year Champions League deal kicks-off from next season.
High quality matches
In the simplest of terms, that translates to huge growth in the output of high-quality matches on the channel. BT Sport will be moving from one game a weekend plus the occasional midweek match to the best club football in Europe throughout the season.
For Best, that means an opportunity for growth in all aspects - from viewing figures to the quality of programming and production. BT Sport have their own in-house production team, but also use other major companies like Boomerang, North One and Sunset+Vine for specific shows. That keeps things fresh and original in the mind of the executive director.
"We can move forward with certainty and build on the unique production setup we have now. That’s what should be taken from what we’ve done so far. There is a good three, four, five year period of growth ahead of us, and that is what our viewers should be looking to enjoy as we build our network with even better quality programming.
"It's easy to forget that we're only sort of 20 months old. Next season we go into a world of games on the weekend, games in midweek - good games, the best club football on the planet. Couple that with the other fantastic sports we have on our channels and you can see it really coming together.
“The schedule on BT Sport continues to get better and better and we have an improved platform to show off our talent and our programmes.”
Debate over analysis
Faith is placed in talent to create and generate debate rather than in-depth analysis through touch-screens like Sky. Having taken one of the crown jewels from their rival, there won’t be a rinse-and-repeat approach from the new kids on the block.
With the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Robbie Savage, Steve McManaman and Ian Wright on the books, there should certainly be no shortage of knowledge or opinion when Europe’s biggest teams collide on the channel.
Ironically, Best was working at Sky when they first introduced the use of touch-screen analysis of games on Monday Night Football. As he’s stressed countless times, it’s about doing things differently but effectively.
"We've not gone down that route because we think there is a strength in debate with the characters that we have on the programmes rather than relying on technology to describe the game. It’s just pure debate about football and that's what we're trying to encourage,” he explains.
"A lot of our programmes are led through the presenting teams, giving people like Jake Humphrey, Craig Doyle, Darren Fletcher and Des Kelly the space to be the characters they want to be. You've got to have people who speak the language of the sport. If they don't, I think fans find it difficult to associate themselves with that person or channel.
“Over five million people now have access to BT Sport - that's a really good platform for us to now build on. Hopefully in three or four years we'll be talking slightly different numbers, but that’s where we’re at right now and we have some great rights and programmes to showcase."
Part of that programming offer includes documentary making.
A passion-project that was proposed and rejected during his time at Sky, Best has watched with envy as the ESPN 30 for 30 series has captured the imagination not just of sports fans but the wider watching public. He was there when the first episode aired back in 2009.
The most recent production from BT Sport - ‘The Crazy Gang’ - was heralded as the best of the 12 productions to-date, generating significant column inches in the national papers for the controversial but genuine portrayal of Wimbledon’s rise to FA Cup glory.
Other acclaimed documentaries include Football Outposts, Cornered and The Mike Hailwood story, and for Best it’s all about digging deeper and telling the story in a way that hasn’t been done on British sporting TV.
"The vision was live rights, and we’ve got that. Then to make some really good programmes around those live rights, either as support or the event themselves. We’re doing that. I wanted to launch with another strand - a film strand and a documentary-making department,” he enthuses.
"I head it up and it’s part of what I do. This gives us an opportunity to go underneath the skin of sports stories we all love and want to know more about. That’s the aim, and knowing we’ve got the relationship with ESPN and their dedication to stories behind the sports, this was a natural fit.
“This is different from most broadcasters in the sports space we’re in. You’d expect a BBC or Channel 4 to look to do things like this, but possibly not a sports network. It is our point of difference. We have some fantastic people behind the scenes and I drive it because I love it.”
This project is not something Best is going to be giving up on anytime soon, with a film on the Bradford fire in the final stages of production and something with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho also on the table.
Details of work with ‘the Special One’ aren’t for sharing at this stage, but with unseen footage and Gabby Logan’s input, the documentary on that tragic day at Valley Parade promises to be a moving piece of work.
“It’s very powerful stuff. Having someone like Gabby involved, who was there and experienced this day, helps to tell this important story. There is some unseen footage which needs to be seen to be believed,” he concludes.
“It’s always tough creating and watching such a piece of work and it’s a difficult story to tell, but one that we felt needed to be.
“We’re also looking forward to doing something with Jose Mourinho, but there is not really much more to say about that at this stage unfortunately. It’s so far so good, but we’ll see."
An exciting future
And with that, our time is up. Best is up, off and running again, with more people to see and decisions to make. Like the channel, he doesn’t stop, and is always looking for another great opportunity.
It’s certainly not mission accomplished in Stratford, and it never will be under Best. That’s what could make BT Sport great.
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