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British Telecom Giant BT Strikes $245 Million Rugby TV Rights Deal

Aviva rugby - H 2012

The company gets the exclusive U.K. rights to Aviva Premiership rugby union games, which have so far aired on satellite TV giant BSkyB and Walt Disney's ESPN.

LONDON - British telecom giant BT has made another big push into live sports rights for its BT Vision TV service, unveiling Wednesday an exclusive rugby deal worth up to £152 million ($245 million).

Under the arrangement, BT gets the exclusive U.K. rights to the Aviva Premiership rugby union league, which has so far been featured on satellite TV giant BSkyB and Walt Disney's ESPN, for four years.

BT earlier this year beat out ESPN for some English Premier League soccer rights and won a selection of matches that includes a number of high-profile games. Analysts saw that as a challenge to BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns 39 percent and which had to pay up to retain the biggest number of EPL games.

The rugby union deal will bring up to 69 live matches to BT Vision per season, starting next year. That is also the start of BT's three-year Premier League deal for 32 games per season. Other rugby competitions, including three years worth of European games featuring Aviva Premiership clubs starting with the 2014-2015 season, are also covered by the deal.

BT has been looking to partner with ITV or other British TV producers to create a sports channel.

“BT is serious about sport, and this deal means we will be offering the very best rugby action alongside some of the most thrilling football matches from the Premier League," said BT Vision CEO Marc Watson. “Rugby Union is entering a thrilling phase with the World Cup being staged here in 2015 and rugby returning to the Olympics in 2016."

He added: "We will also be bringing all of the action together in one place and will look to distribute it on a variety of platforms.” He didn't immediately detail those platforms.

“This is a game-changing agreement and will deliver a service that I know our club supporters will enjoy,” said Mark McCafferty, CEO of Premiership Rugby, the umbrella organization of the Aviva Premiership clubs. He called BT "an ambitious partner that will help bring Premiership Rugby to new audiences."

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi said the continuing BT-BSkyB rivalry could have effects on the industry. "It remains to be seen if a pay TV price war can be avoided," he said, citing "the risk that one of the incumbents will drive pricing down, leading to a sharp profitability decline."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai