Speculation about the possibility of the Disney-owned sports giant ESPN entering the race for live Premier League television rights increased today following reports in the US that it had decided to bid for at least one of the packages on offer.
Broadcasters are currently poring over tender documents for the next Premier League TV contract, which runs from 2010 to 2013.
BSkyB and Setanta, who between them paid £1.7bn for live rights under the current deal, are both expected to bid again for the same packages.
Under the current deal, Sky paid £1.31bn for 92 live games per year, including first choice of the best games. Setanta, the ambitious Irish pay-TV broadcaster, paid £392m for 46 matches. In all, domestic deals raised £1.7bn, including deals with the BBC for highlights and Virgin Media for online highlights.
The Premier League is hoping that ESPN, which is believed to have bid last time around but lost out to Setanta, will enter the race as it attempts to match the record-breaking sums achieved under the current agreement. Including overseas media rights, it brought in a total of £2.7bn over three years.
The broadcaster has steadily increased its presence in the UK in recent years and currently broadcasts two channels – archive service ESPN Classic and recently acquired US sports channel NASN, which will be rebranded ESPN America at the beginning of next month.
But if it was to launch a bid for live Premier League rights, it would have to launch a new UK channel to broadcast them.
A report by Bloomberg in the US said that ESPN was considering bidding for "one or two" of the six live packages on offer, citing a source familiar with its plans. But it is understood that ESPN executives are unlikely to have yet come to a definitive decision about which packages to bid for, or whether to bid for live rights at all.
The closing date for the first round of bids is believed to be in the first week of February. ESPN recently seriously considered a bid for live Bundesliga rights before pulling out at the last minute.
"We are interested in all rights, including the Premier League, as long as they fit our business," said an ESPN spokesman said. "But we don't have any comment on the Premier League despite press speculation about it."
Another oft-mooted option for ESPN would be to launch a takeover bid for Setanta once the rights have been settled.
The Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has been bullish about the possibility of maintaining the value of its broadcasting income despite the global economic slump.
"Clearly, economically, times are interesting but we still think we have a premium product, a product broadcasters want and a product broadcasters will fight over," Scudamore said recently. "There will always be competition, there will always be somebody to sell the packages to."