The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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India set to ignite world cricket as IPL 6 begins

With its glamour, packed stadiums, superb atmospheres and a sprinkling of the best players in world cricket, what’s not to like about the Indian Premier League?

The money-spinning Twenty20 tournament, in its sixth year, will officially start tomorrow with the grand opening ceremony, but most cricket fans will be looking forward to Wednesday and the first match between defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Delhi Daredevils (DD).

KKR, owned by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, boast a very strong side once more with South African limited overs specialists Jacques Kallis and Ryan McLaren set to feature prominently alongside the mysterious off-spin of Sunil Narine.

Big-hitting wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum, who famously smashed 158 in the inaugural IPL match, will hope to transfer his recent good form for New Zealand into another superb IPL season, while Brett Lee, skipper Gautam Gambhir and England’s Eoin Morgan join Yusuf Pathan and Brad Haddin in a squad that should be in contention for a second successive title.

KKR’s roster would have been further boosted by the addition of world number one-ranked all-rounder Shakib al-Hasan, but the Bangladeshi cricket board wanted their star international players available for their tour of Zimbabwe, and so al-Hasan misses out alongside compatriot Tamim Iqbal, who had signed a contract with Pune Warriors.

In fact, the political controversy surrounding IPL 6 has threatened to overshadow the build-up to this great tournament.

The usual political hostilities between Pakistan and India persist, but until the various differences between Pakistan and India both on and off the field can be resolved, the IPL will not develop as fast as it might otherwise have done.

More recently, due to ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese people on India’s eastern coast and Sri Lankan rebels from Tamil Nadu, no Sri Lankan players will be allowed to play at Chennai.

This affects IPL heavyweights the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) the least as seamer Nuwan Kulasekara and spinner Akila Dananjaya are the only Sri Lankans in their squad and will likely play only bit-part roles throughout the IPL campaign.

Critics of the ban have pointed out that this favours Chennai, particularly as world-class players such as Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Lasith Malinga and Tillakaratne Dilshan will not be allowed to play for their respective teams.

Politics aside, Chennai have an excellent group of players to count upon as they look to regain a title that they have won twice in the past three seasons.

Indian talisman MS Dhoni continues to skipper the side, with fellow Indian superstars Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin providing exciting reinforcement.

Added to that quartet are the explosive talents of South African stars Francois du Plessis, Chris Morris and Albie Morkel, while Australian seamers Dirk Nannes and Ben Hilfenhaus will look to bowl tightly in a formidable attack which is enhanced by the tricky variation of West Indian all-rounder Dwayne Bravo.

Bravo’s international team-mate Chris Gayle continues his contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore, and the Jamaican is capable of scoring rapidly with his unrivalled big-hitting.

Gayle has shown in previous IPLs that no stadium is big enough for his gargantuan six-hitting, and he is ably assisted by fellow fast-scorers AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and Dilshan.

Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori will supply their usual guile for a relatively fragile bowling attack, which is spearheaded by swing bowlers Zaheer Khan and Ravi Rampaul.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Chennai in this tournament will be Mumbai Indians, who are traditionally strong and are fortunate to have a plethora of international stars in their ranks.

Home favourites Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma are joined by compatriots Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha, while Malinga, Ricky Ponting, Munaf Patel, Mitchell Johnson and Kieron Pollard complete the Indians’ strong squad.

Delhi Daredevils will be without the influential Jesse Ryder and Kevin Pietersen, the former after suffering a fractured skull in a disgusting attack in Christchurch, but they will have the big-hitting Virender Sehwag and David Warner at their disposal, together with IPL 5’s purple-cap (leading wicket taker) winner Morne Morkel.

England players are scarce finds in the IPL though, as the tournament clashes with the Test series against New Zealand. Consequently, limited overs experts Eoin Morgan (KKR), Dimi Mascarenhas (Kings XI Punjab), Owais Shah (Rajasthan Royals) and Luke Wright (Pune) are the only notable inclusions.

Other international stars set to appear include the fiery Dale Steyn and Cameron White for newly-formed outsiders Sunrisers Hyderabad, formerly known as Deccan Chargers.

Pune, meanwhile, have the brutal Yuvraj Singh, Ross Taylor and Marlon Samuels alongside the crafty Steve Smith and Robin Uthappa and will be seeking an improvement on last season when they could only manage to finish last of the nine teams.

The bookies have Kings XI Punjab as the rank underdogs, but the team based on the foothills of the Himalayas includes Australian legend Adam Gilchrist, Mascarenhas and the reliable Shaun Marsh and David Hussey in their team.

Kings XI Punjab’s weakness has historically been their bowling and they have seemingly done little to address that problem with Ryan Harris, Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla the leading internationals in their attack.

Rajasthan Royals, owned by Bollywood darling Shilpa Shetty, complete the 2013 line-up and could prove to be dark horses after assembling an intriguing squad for IPL 6 which includes the exquisite yet orthodox shotmaking of Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Dravid.

Firepower is provided in the shape of Shane Watson and Shah, while the world’s fastest bowler Shaun Tait is joined by Fidel Edwards and Australian veterans Brad Hogg and Brad Hodge.

Despite the controversy hindering the build-up to the tournament, IPL 6 has the potential to be the best so far – and with the likes of Tendulkar, Dhoni, Gayle and Steyn on show it should prove an irresistible attraction to cricket fans across the globe.

  • ITV 4 will screen every match of the IPL live in the UK.

Who are the best and worst football pundits?

In the UK, we have four television channels that regularly screen live football matches or highlights – and each of them has a mixture of good and bad pundits.

One question remains though. Who are they? Let’s take a look.

The Good

5. Mick McCarthy, ex-BBC

The entertaining Yorkshireman has a no-nonsense attitude on screen and on the sidelines. Currently manager of Ipswich Town, McCarthy started off the season with a stint on Match of the Day 2, to acclaim from the footballing world.

His accessible knowledge of the game was fascinatingly displayed with some incisive and to-the-point analysis. The fact that he gets player’s names correct, and does not bore people to sleep, also helps.

4. Pat Nevin, 5Live & ITV4

The likeable Scot is mostly heard on our radio stations, but occasionally he is afforded a place on our TV screens – somewhere he should be more regularly.

Nevin’s accurate analysis, particularly in the Europa League, and his neutral take on games, provide viewers with a balanced and informative reading of the beautiful game.

3. Lee Dixon, ITV

A surprise selection perhaps, Dixon is noted for his fair and accurate punditry. Being a Manchester City fan and a former Arsenal right-back, Dixon manages to assess fixtures in an unbiased manner.

With his excellent analysis of defensive situations, and an affable on-screen personality, Dixon gets a place in my top three pundits.

2. Kevin Keegan, ESPN

Also a controversial choice on face value, Keegan has established himself as ESPN’s lead pundit.

Despite his challenging opinions, Keegan has a habit of spotting things other pundits miss.

This makes him a more accurate pundit and this, together with his knowledge of the game and engaging personality, makes him a good watch.

1. Gary Neville, Sky Sports

Said to have taken punditry to a new level, Neville is enjoying an unprecedented level of respect amongst the footballing community for his detailed and insightful analysis.

In his element on Sky’s Monday Night Football, Neville has a touchscreen TV at his disposal, and he uses it to maximum effect by offering viewers a state-of-the-art insight into the mechanics of a football match.

Having also taken his punditry into the commentary position alongside Martin Tyler, Neville is arguably the UK’s stand-out football expert.

The Bad

5. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

It’s hard to like Lawro. If his shirts are horrendous, his punditry is even worse.

Lawrenson’s chummy relationship with Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer on MOTD is another bug-bear, and he offers little originality or decisiveness – on his predictions column on the BBC Sport website he invariably predicts 1-1 whenever the top Premier League teams clash.

The ex-Liverpool defender also turns his hand to commentary for major tournaments – frustratingly so. His sense of humour (call me hypocritical) is annoying, and he never seems to fail in making matches less appealing. Worth his place in the worst five.

4. Steve Claridge, BBC

Perhaps the most boring of all pundits on TV, Claridge has the ability to do little else but annoy. His knowledge of league football on the Football League Show is hardly inspiring, and can sometimes detract from the generally exciting matches on show.

Also a radio pundit on 5Live, Claridge is just as underwhelming, often stating the obvious and hiding behind the lead commentator.

3. Gareth Southgate, ITV

Having been out of the managerial hotseat for almost three-and-a-half years, Southgate has been filling a punditry position on ITV while he continues to look for a new job.

That job can’t come quick enough, with Southgate being one of the drabbest pundits around.

His ability to emulate Claridge and state the obvious is accentuated by his lack of insight.

Southgate is also culpable of forgetting player’s names and is sometimes picked on by his more assertive colleagues – notably Roy Keane.

2. Robbie Savage, BBC & 5Live

Aside from his irritating on-screen demeanour, Savage’s opinionated punditry is often inaccurate.

His biggest flaw though, is picking up on something and referring to it in unwavering fashion throughout the match – particularly on 5Live.

This is evidenced by his recent barrage of criticism towards Rafael da Silva in the Champions League last week, accusing the Brazilian of not trying hard enough to contain Cristiano Ronaldo – the fact is, who can?

It was widely held in the national papers on Thursday that Rafael actually had a decent game, unbeknownst to Savage.

This fascination with such observations leaves his punditry with a serious case of ‘tunnel vision’ – one which we could all do without.

1. Martin Keown, BBC & ESPN

Easily the worst pundit on our screens.

The former Arsenal defender had a formidable reputation on the pitch, and is now building one in the studio for all the wrong reasons.

Guilty of making embarrassing gaffes, mispronouncing names and using laughable cliches, Keown’s dour punditry is now being exposed.

Always frowning and fond of making a blind-alley point to round off a discussion, Keown should count himself lucky that both ESPN and the BBC see him as indispensable.