BT Debuts Live English Premier League Soccer Coverage

Wayne Rooney - P 2012

With more than 400,000 tuning in, the telecom giant's initial figures fell short of BSkyB's 2 million for its first game of the campaign.

LONDON – U.K. telecom giant BT's first live English Premier League soccer match on BT Sport averaged more than 400,000 viewers as the telecom kicked off its rivalry with Rupert Murdoch's pay TV powerhouse BSkyB in earnest on Saturday, Aug. 17.

The figure, while less than a quarter of the audience for Sky Sports' live game later on the same day, BT Sport said the audience "compares very well with Sky's first game last season despite them having had years to establish an audience as opposed to weeks and a bigger subscriber base."

BT Sport debuted its soccer coverage with Liverpool vs. Stoke City, the English soccer league's first game of the 2013-14 season, while Sky showed Swansea vs. Manchester United.

Liverpool beat Stoke by a solitary goal.

The game was BT Sport's only program to hit the pay TV ratings top 20 on Saturday or Sunday, according to a Guardian report.

BT Sport chief Simon Green noted in a statement that the figures from audience research company BARB "don't tell the whole story" as the telecom giant has "hundreds of thousands of customers who can watch via platforms that BARB doesn't capture."

Green said that according to BARB data, the Liverpool vs. Stoke game peaked at 764,000 and averaged 447,000 viewers across the match.

"The season ahead promises to be a great one for fans and BT Sport will be at the heart of the action. Three million homes already are able to watch BT Sport on their TVs, and we have received some great feedback saying how fresh and vibrant our coverage is," said Green.

The top-rated pay TV program on Saturday and Sky Sports' best performer over the weekend was the Man U match, which averaged more than 2 million viewers simulcast across Sky Sports 1, pay TV entertainment channel Sky 2 and free-to-air entertainment service Pick TV.

The match averaged 1.7 million and a 10.1 percent share on Sky Sports 1 -- figures The Guardian reported as "thought" to include the Pick TV audience on Freeview -- and 401,000 and 2.4 percent on Sky 2.

BSkyB had managed a coup of its own by airing its sports channels free across platforms for one day only.

The soccer viewing stats were the first battle in a long war between BT and BSkyB, with most analysts noting the fight is for broadband and telephony subscribers rather than footie fan eyeballs.

BT has been on a sports rights shopping spree that has included key soccer and rugby rights, to give broadband and pay TV subscribers an incentive to stay with or join its service.

Earlier this year, BT acquired ESPN’s U.K. and Ireland TV channels business, adding to its two new sports channels.