UK: Premier League football helps boost BT broadband numbers

Jake Humphrey, host of BT's Premier League football coverage, on set with pundits Michael Owen and D

Jake Humphrey, host of BT's Premier League football coverage, on set with pundits Michael Owen and David Janes. - Credit: Supplied

BT claimed today that the lure of its Premier League football offering was producing results as it doubled the number of new broadband customers compared with the same period last year.

The telecoms giant said it had added 156,000 broadband users in the quarter to the end of September, up from 81,000 12 months earlier, taking the total to around seven million.

It also said it had slowed ongoing consumer line losses to 65,000, also an improvement on last year’s figure and better than some City forecasts.

Growth of 70,000 in BT TV, where customers watch via a set-top box from BT, saw numbers reach more than 900,000.

The group said BT Sport now has more than two million customers, including those watching via satellite, the BT TV service or online via an app. A new contract signed with Virgin Media increases the reach to four million households.

BT has paid £738million to show 38 top-flight games a season for the next three years and invested £140 million over the latest quarter.

The latter figure caused the company’s operating costs to rise by 8%, and was higher than previous expectations of a £100m hit for programme content costs.

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But retail revenues grew by 2% to £1.84bn and adjusted profit before tax rose 2% to £609 million, against an expected fall.

BT said underlying earnings had been hit by the sport investment but this was offset by accounting figures relating to depreciation and financing.

Overall revenues for the quarter were flat on the previous year at £4.49bn.

BT’s new chief executive Gavin Patterson said they were “good results”, adding: “BT Sport has made a confident start and is already delivering for viewers.”

Mr Patterson said of BT Sport: “You can see the impact it’s having on the business.”

But he cautioned: “It’s too early to crack the champagne. It’s made a good start but we need to make sure that that continues in future quarters.”

He said there had been a “real push” in the latest period but it would be “difficult to hold those results all the way through from here”.

Mr Patterson added: “We have to be judged on whether our consumer business is growing over the medium term.”

He said growth in consumer revenues had been seen over the quarter for the first time in 10 years. BT said this was up 4%, boosted by a 17% rise in broadband and TV revenue following the launch of the sport channels in August.

A continuing decline in calls and line revenue was smaller than in previous quarters, at 1%.

Mr Patterson was non-committal over speculation that BT is preparing to bid for the rights to Champions League football.

He said: “We don’t feel as though we need to have any more live rights. We’ll evaluate them and if they are going to create value for the group, we are going to be interested in them.”

Mr Patterson said the projected impact of investment on underlying earnings was in line with projections of £100m. The £140m costs given in the quarterly results were offset by additional wholesale revenues as a result of the sport offering.

Meanwhile, BT said its fibre broadband network, which is also open to other service providers, had grown to more than 17m.

Its own retail business added 195,000 fibre broadband customers to take the total to around 1.7 million.

Richard Hunter, head of equities at Hargreaves Lansdown stockbrokers, said: “The take-up of BT Sport from existing customers, as well as its contract with Virgin Media, puts the company in front of a whole raft of consumers.

“This has, of course, come at a cost, and investment in the new foray into sport has provided a drag on overall earnings.

“On balance, though, the company’s prospects continue to whet the appetite of growth investors. BT remains a company in transition but it already has extremely firm foundations in place for further progress.”

Earlier this month analysts at UBS downgraded shares in the telecoms giant amid concerns that it has overestimated the size of the market for its TV sports channels as it vies with Sky over football coverage.

BSkyB has so far shrugged off the competition, announcing earlier this month that record numbers tuned in to the start of the football season, with an average audience of 1.55m compared with 1.29m last year.

Recent figures show BT has achieved average audiences of 588,000 for Premier League matches, less than the 641,000 average achieved last season by ESPN.

But it points out that it has a higher audience share, averaging 4.95% of around nine million viewers watching TV at lunchtime when its games are shown, compared to ESPN’s 2.8% of a total teatime audience that was twice the size.