By Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) - BT has beaten arch-rival Sky to retain the rights to broadcast Champions League soccer matches until 2021, agreeing to pay 1.2 billion pounds -- nearly a third more than last time.
BT, Britain's biggest broadband and mobile operator, said it had won the exclusive rights to show both live matches and highlights in Britain from 2018/19, featuring the likes of holders Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
BT has taken on Sky in the sports rights market but an accounting scandal in Italy and a profit warning in its corporate business had raised questions about its ability to reshape itself as more of a growth-focused, content supplier.
The former state-owned telecoms group said it had been "financially very disciplined" in the auction.
"We are paying more but we've got a lot more for it, 35 percent more broadcasting slots for example, and complete exclusivity instead of being shared with ITV," said John Petter, chief executive of BT's consumer business.
BT's new package includes 'double-header' nights of two matches starting at 6 pm and 8 pm, which it hopes will appeal to pubs and clubs. Commercial broadcaster ITV has a highlights programme as part of the current deal.
BT has bundled soccer coverage in with its broadband packages, starting with some English Premier League games in 2013, to help protect its leadership in its core market from rivals such as Sky.
Analysts at Jefferies noted that before it launched BT Sport in 2013, it was losing around 200,000 consumer customers a quarter. The immediate impact of BT Sport was to reduce line loss by two thirds, and it has enabled BT to raise prices ahead of inflation since then.
"Loss of rights would have undermined retention efforts and pricing power," they said, adding that the winning bid was in line with expectations.
"But the speed of the announcement, less than a week after the tender deadline, suggests bidding action was muted, so shareholders may wonder how necessary it was to meet UEFA's expectation of a rise of at least 30 percent in full."
BT has been screening the competition since 2015 after it beat Sky with a deal that signalled its willingness to go head-to-head with its rival in the sports broadcasting market.
Petter said BT could fund the new deal through more than 1 billion pounds of free cash generated by it consumer business, and it would not have to change any of its financial forecasts.
Audiences for soccer on pay-TV have come under pressure this season, but Petter said BT Sport was bucking the trend by using social media like YouTube to reach fans.
He said BT Sports audience was up by about 5 percent year-on-year and it was continuing to grow.
"This isn't about customers paying top dollar, this is about customers paying very affordable prices, our prices start from 3.50 pounds, and there's a lot free on social media," he said.
Petter did not completely rule out doing a secondary deal to provide highlights to a free-to-air broadcaster such as ITV, but said social media was a great way to reach viewers.
BT streamed the finals of the Champions League and the secondary Europa League on YouTube as well as showing them on its own channels, last year, achieving a combined audience of 12 million people, he said.
Shares in BT were trading up 0.2 percent at 334 pence on Monday, while Sky was down by the same percentage at 996 pence.
Sky has previously said it can live without the Champions League, saying its U.S. drama and films gives it a wider audience. It retains the majority of the rights to the Premier League.
($1 = 0.8141 pounds)
(Reporting by Paul Sandle; editing by Kate Holton and Keith Weir)