LONDON (Reuters) - BT will kick off its challenge to BSkyB's dominance of the British sports rights market with live coverage of Liverpool's Premier League soccer match against Stoke City next month.
Former state telecoms company BT is investing about 1 billion pounds developing its sports channels, opening a new front in a marketing battle with BSkyB to offer subscribers a compelling bundle of television, broadband and telephone services.
A glance at the coming soccer season's early fixtures shows the scale of the challenge facing BT after it replaced Disney-owned ESPN as the second Premier League broadcaster in Britain.
BSkyB, which has the rights to 116 games over the season against 38 for BT, will feature champions Manchester United's away match with Swansea on the evening of Saturday August 17. It will also show United's home game with Chelsea on Monday August 26 and visit to Liverpool the following Sunday.
United will not make their first appearance on BT Sport until September 14, when they host promoted Crystal Palace.
TALKING A GOOD GAME
The division of the fixtures prompted a fresh round of one-upmanship from the rival companies before the launch of the BT Sport channels at the start of August.
"The important thing for us is to feature the big teams early," Marc Watson, head of BT's TV division, told Reuters. "Their fans are going to want to watch these matches."
BT will show the Tottenham-Chelsea London derby at the end of September and Everton-Liverpool game in November.
BSkyB, which has used the Premier League to build up its business over the past two decades, is paying 760 million pounds per season for its rights. BT has acquired its 38 games at an annual cost of 246 million pounds.
"When you look at the opening fixtures in black and white, you can see that no other broadcaster comes close to the quality that we offer," Sky Sports Managing Director Barney Francis said. "Sky Sports will show every match between last season's top four, as well as every club at least twice by December."
BT is offering its sports channels free to its broadband customers to try to defend its market leadership. BSkyB has responded with a deal giving free broadband to customers who subscribe to its sports channels.
The entry of BT into the market has driven up the value of domestic rights by 70 percent from the previous three-year contract, a great boost to the 20 Premier League clubs.
(Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and David Goodman)