Telecoms giant takes on Sky with launch of sports channels, with Jake Humphrey to anchor football coverage
BT is to offer its new sports channels, offering live Premier League football, free to customers who take its broadband service as the telecoms operator ramps up its challenge to BSkyB's dominance of UK pay-TV.
The company also confirmed on Thursday as it launched its sports pay-TV offering at its new broadcasting base in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, that former BBC presenter Jake Humphrey will anchor its Premier League coverage.
BT, which is launching two TV channels in early August and has also bought most of ESPN UK's operation and sports rights, is aiming to lure customers to its fledgling TV service BT Vision and protect and grow its broadband customer base.
It is understood that BT is to offer the "free" channels to its broadband customers, who pay from £15 a month, regardless of whether they take their TV service from rivals including BSkyB. Non-BT customers can pay from £12 to £15 a month for the sports channels.
"UK sports fans have had a rough deal for too long," said the BT chief executive, Ian Livingston. "Many have been priced out of the market but we will change this by giving away BT Sport for free with our broadband. BT is the home of broadband so the fight for customers will now take place on our own turf."
BT, which is set to launch a multimillion-pound ad campaign to promote its range of sports rights, is expected to start broadcasting the two new channels from August, when it will start broadcasting live Premier League matches from the start of the new football season.
The telecoms giant has signed BBC presenters Jake Humphrey and Clare Balding, as well as a number of brand ambassadors including Robin van Persie and Gareth Bale. Rio Ferdinand has also been signed as an interviewer, programme-maker and football expert.
BT's ad campaign is currently not booked to air in Sky's 10m-plus households, after the satellite broadcaster refused to allow the ads to run on its Sky Sports portfolio of channels.
BT is also aiming to undercut what BSkyB charges pubs and clubs to air Premier League matches. It is offering pubs and clubs 12 months for the price of nine, with free set-top box and installation. BT claims the saving could be as much as 80% compared with what Sky charges.
The company paid £738m for 38 Premier League matches a season for the next three years.
BT also unveiled details about its lineup of presenters and pundits.
Darren Fletcher, a regular on BBC Radio 5 Live, and Ian Darke join as commentators.
Michael Owen, who is to retire at the end of the season, has been hired as a co-commentator.
Steve McManaman, Owen Hargreaves and David James will offer opinion and analysis.
Premier League referee Mark Halsey will join in a "brand new role" in the commentary team working across all of BT's football coverage.
ESPN broadcaster Ray Stubbs will join as chief football reporter.
BT acquired ESPN's UK channels in February.
Journalist and broadcaster Des Kelly has been hired to present a new sports magazine programme called Life's a Pitch.
A long list of brand "ambassadors" for the channels includes footballers Daniel Sturridge and Joe Hart and rugby stars Chris Robshaw and Owen Farrell.
"We are delighted to unveil today's strong lineup of real sporting experts who will keep our viewers informed and seriously entertained," said Grant Best, senior executive channel producer at BT Sport.
BSkyB's share price fell almost 6% as investors reacted to the implications for the satellite broadcaster.
BSkyB has done exceedingly well attracting customers to its broadband service, its subscriber base hit 4.4m in at the end of the first quarter, and analysts believe that BT's offer will impact growth.
Polo Tang at UBS said that Sky will see a slowdown in new broadband subscriber numbers but he did not believe they will leave "en masse to take up BT Sports".
He added that the bulk of Sky's revenues and earnings – more than 80% – come from its 10.4 million pay-TV customers and that the level of the share price fall is "harsh".
Tang said that the concern was whether a price war might ensue that will impact the profitability of the "triple-play" market – customers who take a mix of products such as TV, broadband and telephony from one provider.
"There may be fears that [Sky] retaliates against BT by cutting broadband pricing, leading to a negative impact on the whole triple-play market," he said.
BSkyB dismissed the challenge posed by BT, arguing that the lion's share of Premier League matches it has the rights to mean it is "in a different league", and that customers will quickly see through the company's claim of "free" football.
"This is all about broadband and BT's latest attempt to stem the flow of customers who've switched in their millions to rivals like Sky over the last few years.
"BT Sport is not 'free' and customers are smart enough to realise they'll pay for it through more expensive broadband and phone services," said Stephen van Rooyen, managing director of Sky's sales and marketing group. "Sky Sports is playing in a different league to BT Sport".
Van Rooyen accused BT of using its sport channels as a "marketing gimmick" to try and "stem the flow" of customers switching to Sky's broadband service.
"For us, sport isn't a marketing gimmick to promote another product," he said. "We're long-term supporters and our sustained investment has benefited sports fans and British sport at all levels."
He claimed that the "vast majority" of Sky broadband customers would pay more than £110 a year more to get the same service from BT.
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