Sport

Big Interview: Bruce Cuthbert, BT Sport director, commercial customers

By Mike Berry

- Last updated on GMT

Big Interview: Bruce Cuthbert, BT Sport director, commercial customers

Related tags: Bt sport, Uefa champions league, Premier league

Just two years on from launch, BT Sport has secured exclusive rights to football’s top European competitions. Mike Berry finds out how the company will make the case for pubs to switch on to its service.

Bruce Cuthbert is in a cheerful mood. The football team he supports —Chelsea — have just romped to the Premier League title with a month to spare, swatting aside challengers in the clinical fashion that’s become the trademark of teams managed by Jose ‘The Special One’ Mourinho.

“Jose is absolute Box Office as far as I’m concerned. Whatever he says is dynamite because football isn’t just about what happens on the pitch for the 90 minutes, it’s also about the stories and narrative that accompany it,” he says.

But more than just basking in the glory of Chelsea’s triumph, Cuthbert — BT Sport director, commercial customers — is bristling with excited anticipation for the months ahead, when the channel gets its hands exclusively on Champions League and Europa League football.

The memories and controversies of this season’s final few matches will still be fresh in the mind when, next month, the broadcaster begins its trade communications campaign focused on next season’s kick-off in August.

BT has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Champions League and Europa League football next season​ in a c£900m three-year deal — the first time a single UK broadcaster has won live rights to all matches from both tournaments.

Transformational

Cuthbert believes the rights deal will be “transformational” for the business, as well as providing a big revenue opportunity for pubs.

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Both Arsenal and Manchester City will feature in next season's Champions League

“Champions League next season is huge for us; it’s not just a few more games — it’s transformational in terms of our proposition to the marketplace. We’re going from broadcasting 38 Premier League games and the FA Cup to showing eight games live concurrently on one night in the group stages. That’s more than a small addition to our product!”

BT has said it will show a selection of the 350 matches per season — broadcast on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights — for free, with each participating British club featuring at least once each season.

He believes pubs, which are used to showing the Tuesday night free-to-air match, will be in prime place to attract customers out of their living rooms — if they subscribe to BT Sport.

“For example, if you take the recent Juventus v Real Madrid Champions League semi-final (broadcast on ITV), how many pubs would have shown that? From next season, a match of that standing is not going to be on a free-to-air channel. For pubs that have a BT Sport subscription it means they become a real destination for those three consecutive nights,” he says.

Low cost

The company made a big play at launch — offering a lower-cost alternative to Sky​ for pubs and clubs that wanted to show premium sport. But with the number of football matches BT Sport broadcasts set to rise dramatically, licensees will be hoping subscription prices don’t follow suit.

Cuthbert refuses to discuss pricing for next season at this point, but hints that increases are on the way. “This is a new product, so, of course, the pricing is going to be different to what it is now. If you look at it across all competitions, then we are probably showing 50 games a season featuring Premier League teams,” he says. “That number will more than double next season with their addition of the Champions and Europa Leagues, so it’s a fundamentally different proposition.”

Pricing gripes with the sport broadcasters are common among licensees, but Cuthbert believes BT Sport will remain “good value”, particularly because midweek free-to-air matches will have disappeared.

“We often talk to licensees about seeing a difference in footfall from Tuesday to Wednesday nights and how it’s diluted on the former because every pub with a TV is showing the match or people are watching it at home. That will not exist next season and we will be getting that message out there loud and clear soon,” he insists.

Growth

The very fact Cuthbert is in a position to talk about the huge increase in games is all the more remarkable when you consider BT Sport first aired in August 2013. He joined the fledgling broadcaster after a 15-year stint at Sky in a variety of senior sales and marketing roles, and was responsible for, among other things, launching on-screen pint glass ‘bug’ that signified pubs with a valid commercial agreement.

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BT Sport has signed up thousands of pubs since launch

He admits starting from nothing was an exciting, if not slightly scary, position to be in. “It is like being in a start-up but within the context of a business that has huge resources and a huge desire to be successful in a new marketplace,” he says. “It’s been a fun two years; there’s no legacy of the ‘way things used to be done’ so that’s refreshing, but it also means you need to be thoughtful in terms of where that takes you.”

From a standing start, figures revealed at the end of last year showed that more than 24,000 commercial premises have taken BT’s sports service, and that 30% of UK pubs now subscribe​. Independent research undertaken on behalf of the company also shows that BT has grown the market for premium sport by an impressive 26%.

Pride

Cuthbert’s pride at those achievements is underpinned by a sense of pragmatism. “We’re very realistic in terms that showing premium sport is just one part of what pubs can offer,” he says. “Sport doesn’t have to be the be all and end all — it’s just one part of the retail proposition that makes pubs great.

“It was part of our ambition to make our product accessible to pubs that were previously unable to afford it. We’re pleased to be able to have done that and grown the market.”

Plans are in place to up its game digitally and boost the marketing support offered to licensees in the run up to next season.

“More than 50% of pubs in the country have a TV and will show something on that whether it’s paid for or free-to-air sport. If they’ve got that, it’s a matter of finding out what they would be prepared to invest in, whether they want it to become a regular event or want to build a day part,” he says.

If he has any frustrations with the licensed trade and how it treats live sport he hides them well, saying only that he wants pubs to make the most of their subscription in a way that’s right for them and their customers.

“The last thing I want to do is chastise a pub for not showing something that I think is a great programme. We know there are pubs that won’t show any sport with a round ball because they’ve paid for the rugby and aren’t interested in football. So you have to give licensees credit for what they are doing, but help where you can,” Cuthbert says.

What he is certain of is that pubs remain the home for the big matches — no matter what the sport.

He adds: “People go to pubs because of the atmosphere, the fact you can celebrate or commiserate with friends, fellow fans, or even complete strangers.

“The key for licensees is offering a great customer experience.”

Key dates

1985
Graduates with degree in business studies from Middlesex Polytechnic and begins career at Rank Xerox

1990
Joins Granada Group as commercial manager, then becoming head of marketing

1997
Begins career at Sky as head of development, eventually taking on marketing responsibilities

2002
Head of operations, Sky

2006
Appointed director of sales, Sky

2010
Group & international sales director, Sky

2012
Joins BT Sport as director, commercial customers

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