Why Sky Sports is the real BSkyB innovator

Opinion: Flasghip service for both company and TV

Sky Sports ahead of the game

Many years ago, when I was still a young journalist beavering away to make my name with the start-up site planetfootball.com, we found out that a couple of companies were looking to buy the site. These were cable giants NTL and satellite behemoth Sky.

We were stuck out on a small business estate on the outskirts of Harrogate, working alongside a betting company called Surrey Racing and in constant contact with the third leg of our operation Opta Stats which was based down in London.

As an office, particularly an office full of football journalists, we were desperate for it to be Sky that snapped us up and, to my eternal gratitude, it was – buying the three companies that made up Sports Internet Group for in excess of £300million.

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A few weeks later, the internet bubble burst and that deal went down as one of the worst-timed in internet history.

Nine years on

Looking back just shy of nine years on, that deal doesn't look nearly as stupid. Surrey Racing became the hugely successful Sky Bet arm of BSkyB, many former-Opta staff can be found in the statistics department of Sky Sports and the main Skysports.com operation was moved up to Harrogate and amalgamated with the planetfootball team, aiding in its progression to one of the most successful sports websites in the world.

"As far as I'm aware, they've never written off anything from that acquisition," said SIG's founder Peter Wilkinson in an interview for Real Business in 2007. "They're doing enormous revenues off Sports Internet."

Working for Sky and working for Sky Sports are technically the same thing, but the difference between the two departments is huge. Sky Sports' success will always be considered the area that put Sky on the map – with its coverage of the Premiership converting not only the company but English football to boot.

Which all serves to suggest that I'm always going to be biased in my view of Sky Sports.

The great innovator

But I'd go as far as to say that not only has Sky Sports proven to be the driver for BSkyB, it has also been a key driver for much of the television innovation that the UK has seen.

When Sky rolls out one of its new technologies – HD for instance, or more recently 3D broadcasting – there can be little doubt about what it sees as its key product.

The drive for HD programming was built on the desire for football fans to see the Premiership in the best possible quality. When the world's media was shown Sky's vision of a 3D future it was Ricky Hatton's boxing, football and rugby league that made up the lion's share of the showreel.

An earlier innovation was the channel's Interactive sport; hidden behind the red button this has come from being the world's first interactive football match to one of the most sophisticated interactive services available.

Not only do football fans get to listen to alternative commentaries from fans or from betting experts, but they can also watch highlights or even choose which match they want to watch.

Online, live football was pushed when Sky's Player was recently made accessible for anyone - regardless of whether they had a satellite or not - and Skysports.com is the company's most successful website by a significant margin.

Upgrade from terrestrial

Perhaps most pivotally, it was Sky Sports that convinced many of the nine million subscribers to the satellite service that they should look beyond the terrestrial analogue stations in the first place.

Digital and multi-channel television is taken for granted these days, with Freeview, Freesat and cable all competing to show us their Living+1s and FXs, but the climate when Sky went digital was very different.

So although Sky will be celebrating its 20th birthday as a whole today, I'd like to think that Sky Sports' staff will be celebrating that little bit harder; not only because they have sealed four out of six Premiership games packages, but also because it is they that I think deserve the credit as the satellite innovators of UK television.