My Turn

Setanta On the Ropes

6/22/2009 6:48 PM

The Setanta Sports flameout in the U.K. can’t be good for the U.S. premium channel.

I’m also not sure it helps U.S. soccer fans, even though the rights it holds are used on a channel that’ll cost you $15 or more on satellite TV or, less likely, on Comcast, Cox, RCN, FiOS TV or U-verse.

Setanta Sports image from The Telegraph

The update, which you’ll know if you’re a U.S.-based footie fan, is that Ireland-based Setanta TV is in serious financial trouble. In February, it lost the rights to half of the 46 Barclay’s English Premier League games it once had in the United Kingdom, and that crushed its chances of hitting subscriber marks it needed to stay in business. Today it was reported that ESPN had picked up those EPL games for U.K. broadcasting after Setanta failed to meet a payment deadline last week.

In the U.S., EPL matches — featuring teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal — are the main reason to subscribe to the U.S. Setanta Sports channel. For the longest time Setanta Sports USA was only on DirecTV but is now on Dish, too, and select cable systems such as Cox in Northern Virginia and Comcast in New England, as well as Verizon and AT&T’s video platforms.

It’s not widely available and costs upwards of $15 a month when it is. It has games that aren’t on Fox Soccer Channel, but FSC does have a good selection of games. If you are a diehard and can’t get the channel on satellite, you likely live in a big city, and can catch Setanta matches at a pub that gets the two Setanta channels. I for example saw every Liverpool match this season, on TV, except for the last one, which wasn’t on either Setanta or FSC. And I subscribe to a cable system that doesn’t offer Setanta.

I probably would get the channel if offered — but would certainly be scared by the events in England.

Setanta’s U.S. channel posted an important message to subscribers on its Web site, stating that events over there are separate from the U.S. channel.

Here’s what Setanta posted:

“As has been widely reported in various media channels, Setanta Sports has had its agreement to broadcast 46 Barclays Premier League matches in the UK terminated. This development does not affect our channels and other services in the US. Setanta Sports in the US is a separate operation that has separate agreement to show the Barclay’s Premier League. Our channels and other services in the US continue to broadcast and our subscribers can still enjoy our programming including the Lions Tour of South Africa and the UEFA U21 European Championship. New customers are welcome to subscribe to watch some of the world’s best soccer and rugby either by contacting our cable and satellite partners or online at www.setanta.com. We thank you for your continued interest in Setanta Sports and look forward to bringing you a wealth of sport over the coming months and years.”

Will this continue to be the case? ESPN had bid before on EPL rights, but only for Europe, where it seems to have plans to launch a soccer channel. In the U.S., ESPN divides the soccer matches it has on various channels but doesn’t have a dedicated soccer channel. It doesn’t seem to want one here.

If Setanta went under, would those matches be as available as they are now, to anyone who can subscribe to Setanta as a premium channel or see the games at a friendly pub, such as Kinsale Tavern on the Upper East Side of N.Y.C? Questionable.

Hard to see how FSC, which also shows Italian Serie A matches, could accommodate the extra load. Not clear to me if Fox would set up pub channels. Maybe it would though: ESPN made a deal with News Corp.-owned BSkyB to retail its new EPL games to “residential and commercial customers.”

Is international soccer hot in the U.S.? Yes. The World Cup is returning next year, to South Africa, and that always raises interest in the sport, though the USA squad isn’t doing that well at the moment. (Update: I guess I missed the last match, where USA! USA! USA! beat Egypt 3-0, advancing in the just-for-yucks Confederations Cup only because Italy lost to Brazil 3-0.) ESPN and Gol TV cut a deal that will double the number of matches from Spain’s La Liga shown on U.S. cable and satellite platforms. La Liga and the EPL are considered the top European leagues.

My tilt is to the EPL, which Setanta now presents here in quantity. So I’m hoping, for now at least, that Setanta (named for a mythical Irish hero) hangs onto the U.S. matches.

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