Cable Operators

Fox Soccer 1, Setanta Nil

1/16/2010 2:00 AM Eastern

Fox Soccer Channel will kick off a new premium channel on March 1. Whether that launch will sound the final whistle on Setanta Sports USA remained a question at press time.

Scheduled to bow as a premium channel, Fox Soccer Plus will include such properties as England’s FA Cup, Italy’s Serie A matches, Barclays Premier League and UEFA Champions League, rights Fox Soccer holds in the U.S.

The latter two also were rights that FSC has sublicensed to premium network Setanta, which counts DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T’s U-verse TV, Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV and RCN — as well as Cox Communications and Comcast in select markets — as key affiliates.

Setanta will continue to hold those rights until Feb. 28, at which point they will revert to FSC, which was said to be in talks in recent weeks to purchase the premium network outright.

That’s also the date one executive at a Setanta affiliate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the distributor indicated would be the service’s “last day.”

The executive added that the “notification process to customers would begin on Jan. 28.” A crawl and voice messaging to that effect are to appear on the premium channel, while customers would also receive written notice.

Setanta officials declined repeated requests for comment.

Most of Setanta’s affiliates also declined to comment on the situation. Officials at two of them said they had yet to be contacted by Setanta or Fox Cable Networks about the premium channels’ plans.

“It would be difficult for them [to continue],” observed an executive in the TV-sports community. “It’s certainly a diminished service without two of their most important properties.”

Over the past two weeks, listings for BPL matches that had been withdrawn from Setanta USA’s Web site were reinstated. The Setanta site no longer lists that property or the Champions League under its “Our Sports” heading, though, alongside the FA Cup, the Carling Cup, the Coca-Cola Championship, international friendlies, Scottish Premier League, MUTV (Manchester United TV) and Chelsea TV. Setanta also shows Gaelic sports, such as Irish football and hurling, and some top rugby fare.

In November, Setanta Sports USA said it renewed some key rugby competitions through 2014.

FSC and Setanta have been on the same side of a number of rights plays. At The Cable Show 2008 in New Orleans, Setanta and FSC said they had jointly acquired the U.S. rights to the FA Cup, the oldest knockout competition in England.

Last spring, Fox Sports International and Setanta gained rights to the Champions League for the 2010-11 through 2012-13 competitions, ending a 15-year run on ESPN2.

But in August, on the eve of the BPL kicking off its current season, FSC transferred the rights to 48 league matches, which had been assigned to Setanta, to ESPN.

Earlier that month, ESPN picked up 46 BPL matches in the U.K. from Setanta Sports in the U.K., when the programmer fell into receivership there.

Last fall, Fox Sports International secured U.S. BPL rights for the 2010-11 through the 2012-13 seasons, but has yet to announce any sublicensing deals.

The distributor who said Setanta would be going dark lamented the looming loss. “Setanta had a nice following; it’s been good for us,” he said, noting the carrier “would likely go to Fox.”

Sources said that Time Warner Cable could launch Fox Soccer Channel Plus in select markets.

Fox Soccer executives declined to comment about its distribution efforts or progress to date.

Carriers will have flexibility to carry Fox Soccer Plus as a stand-alone premium channel or as part of a sports tier.

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