ESPN will show live FA Cup football from next season, after agreeing a deal with the Football Association to fill the gap left by the collapse of the pay-TV broadcaster Setanta.
The Guardian reports that The FA had held extensive negotiations with the BBC, hoping to rebuild a relationship that was damaged when the former FA chief executive Brian Barwick opted for a £425m deal with ITV and Setanta over a bid from the BBC and Sky. But with much of the BBC's budget committed to Formula One and elsewhere, and concerns at ITV about the prospect of sharing the rights with a terrestrial rival, ESPN's more financially attractive offer is believed to have been rubber-stamped at today's FA board meeting.
ESPN's offer is thought to have been 60% higher than that tabled by the BBC, however, that bid is also understood to be for a longer contract period and still worth substantially less than the amount paid by Setanta. ITV will have first pick of matches but ESPN will show two live games per round. ESPN's deal will not start until the beginning of next season. In the meantime the FA will continue to sell the rights to one extra game per round to ITV and broadcast one free over the internet. The online experiment has been considered a success and the FA plans to continue the innovation next season.
Next year the number of live Premier League matches that ESPN has the rights to will be halved, to 23 per season. The rights to two live FA Cup matches per round, and joint rights to the final with ITV, will give the channel access to valuable content at a time when it faces losing subscribers. The contract is thought to run for at least four years, despite ITV having only two years to run on its £275m deal, which also includes England's competitive home internationals.
Corporation insiders said that in the current political climate, with the BBC's sports rights budget committed for several years to come, it simply did not have the funds to bid any more than it did.
The FA refused to comment and ESPN would say only that it "continued to be interested in all rights where they are available and where they fit our business model".