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Premier League TV soccer auction draws to close

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Apr 26 (Reuters) On the eve of the bid deadline, analysts expect BSkyB to win the lion's share of England's Premier League soccer rights, even though the European Commission has forced it to give up its long-held monopoly.

The winners could be announced as soon as Thursday, the deadline for bids, or the process could drag on to a second round if there is no clear winner for the six 23-game TV packages. The European Commission has ruled that no one broadcaster can win all of them.

Sky, which has grown into Britain's dominant pay-TV company with a major assist from football, is likely to take five of the six packages, according to Alan Flitcroft, media partner at Ernst&Young.

''The most likely outcome will be Sky with five packages and a pay company -- probably Setanta -- with one,'' he said.

Setanta, an Irish pay-TV operator that is partly owned by private equity Benchmark Capital, said last week that it plans to bid for two packages.

BSkyB declined to comment.

Flitcroft estimated that the three-year rights will bring in a total of about 1.1 billion pounds, up about 10 per cent from the last contract.

Cable firm NTL is still a potential spoiler to Sky's dominance, although a source familiar with the situation said it had not yet submitted a bid. The deadline for bids is Thursday morning. BT Group could also bid to bolster its forthcoming television offering.

''On account of its greater firepower, and the unproven track records in content of other potential bidders such as NTL and BT, we expect Sky to win at least four of the six packages, with Setanta winning one or two packages,'' said Teather&Greenwood analyst Conor O'Shea.

Free-to-air broadcasters ITV, BBC and Channel 4 could also take part, although this is seen as unlikely given the high cost.

''Many observers have written off the terrestrials, but the BBC and ITV might just try and sneak one of the lesser packages on the cheap, hoping the bidding strategies of the pay TV players give them an opening,'' Flitcroft said.

Reuters RL DB2248

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