Media match of the season: underdog Setanta takes on Sky at its own game

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Media match of the season: underdog Setanta takes on Sky at its own game

One of the most intriguing clashes of the impending Premiership season will not be between players, managers or even billionaire owners. The increasingly acrimonious battle for viewers between Sky Sports, the Ru'pert Murdoch-backed pay-TV giant, and newcomer Setanta Sports, which yesterday unveiled its lineup for the coming season, will be as full-blooded as those on the back pages.

A record £2.7bn is being poured into Premiership clubs by media groups in the new deal, already signalling another bout of inflation in transfer fees and wages.

Amid dark tales of the two broadcasters poaching one another's staff as the kick-off approaches, Setanta yesterday declared war on Sky with an aggressive marketing campaign highlighting its cheaper prices, and unveiled its secret weapon - veteran football anchor Des Lynam.

The former Match of the Day host will act more as talisman than playmaker, fronting Setanta's high-profile ad campaign and conducting a weekly flagship interview with big names such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Martin O'Neill.

Lynam said of his decision to join Setanta: "It's a new kid on the block. Sky could do with a rival and I think it will do great. It's healthy for the sport to have another main player in the game." Both are trying to present themselves as the choice of genuine football fans, with Setanta's marketing featuring romantic images of children kicking balls against walls, emotional crowd shots and the tag line "Born out of a love for the game".

But, Lynam aside, Setanta joint chief executive Michael O'Rourke said the emphasis for the broadcaster would be on youth. Steve McManaman, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder lined up as Setanta's star pundit, said: "Maybe the fact myself and Les [Ferdinand] and Tim Sherwood are from the younger generation and know a lot of the players will help. We've all played numerous times in the Premier League and I think maybe that's what Setanta were trying to go for - that younger generation who have been there and done that recently."

The irony of Setanta trying to position itself as a youthful David to Sky's Goliath is not lost on executives at the pay-TV giant's west London headquarters, given that Sky owes much of its success to aggressively taking on the broadcasting establishment.

Setanta Sports, headed by former Sky Sports number two Trevor East and including a number of other former Sky figures among its executive team, has poached Angus Scott from ITV as its main football anchor and also signed up Football Italia presenter James Richardson.

It will also launch its own versions of Sky's innovations, including a Saturday afternoon live results show and a rolling sports news channel. Until now, Sky has had a virtual monopoly on Premiership rights since the top flight broke away from the Football League in 1992 and sparked an explosion in talent, wages and hype.

The clash between Sky and Setanta followed the intervention of the European commission in the way the Premier League sells TV rights. Setanta was launched in the back room of a pub as a means of beaming a 1990 Republic of Ireland World Cup match to expats; it has since built a sizeable business around the world and has splashed out £392m on 46 games per season. But Sky, which paid £1.3bn, retained the lion's share of matches, showing 92 games a season and having first pick of the biggest games.

The Irish challenger, named after a heroic figure from Celtic mythology, hopes to focus on the fact that it charges less than £10 a month, requires no annual contract and offers most Freeview viewers the opportunity to watch live top-flight football for the first time. It will also offer live Premiership action on the web for the first time with a new service, Setanta by Broadband, costing £7.99 a month.

Because both broadcasters must show a spread of teams, it will have its share of those involving the top four on Saturday teatime and Monday evening, but Sky can rightfully claim the biggest and most meaningful clashes.

It hopes to pick up committed fans who want comprehensive coverage as well as more casual viewers who can't or won't pay the £34 upwards that Sky charges for packages including Sky Sports 1 and 2.

BSkyB, widely considered to have raised the bar in terms of quality sports coverage, points to the depth and breadth of its service and its technological innovation with Sky Plus, high definition and low cost broadband.

Setanta further raised the ire of BSkyB by aligning itself last week with bitter rival Virgin Media, the cable company in which Sir Richard Branson is the largest single shareholder. Virgin will offer Setanta Sports for nothing to the 1.4m subscribers to its top tier package. Setanta has done a similar deal with BT Vision, the internet television arm of the telecom giant that is also hoping to use football as a key weapon in the scrap for broadband customers.

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