The English Premier League on Thursday kicked off the auction for a new domestic television deal which will be a test of whether pay TV operator BSkyB can maintain its dominance of live coverage of football.
The Premier League, which enjoys the most lucrative television deals in world football, gets 1.78 billion pounds for live rights under the current agreement which has one more season to run. It is seeking a new three-year deal to start from 2013/14.
There has been speculation that Qatar-based Al Jazeera might seek to bid for rights after expanding aggressively in its coverage of French football.
Under the current deal, BSkyB, part owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, shows 115 games per season and U.S. owned ESPN a further 23.
The number of games shown live will rise to 154 - divided into five p ackages of 26 matches and two blocks of 12. No one buyer will be allowed to acquire more than 116 games in total.
Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore had said that the rights could be offered on a pan-European basis after a legal fight by an English pub landlady who undercut BSkyB by showing games using a Greek television decoder.
However, the 20-team Premier League is seeking bids for British rights only in invitations issued to prospective purchasers on Thursday. The rights are expected to be awarded in June.
Once that is complete, the Premier League will turn its attention towards renewing international agreements to show games. Foreign deals earn the League an additional sum of more than 1.3 billion pounds over the current three-year contract, far more than other European rivals can earn abroad.
BSkyB has had the lion's share of live rights in Britain since the Premier League was launched two decades ago and its coverage has helped to fuel its expansion to more than 10 million households.
ESPN, a unit of Walt Disney Co, wants to increase its coverage.
Ross Hair, ESPN's managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told The Guardian newspaper on Thursday that his company would bid aggressively.
"We have a very specific outcome [in mind] - more games and building the quality of those games," he was quoted as saying.comments