Apple could be set to rush soccer broadcasting into a new era with a revolutionary, multi-billion dollar bid for television rights to the English Premier League.
And it could have implications far beyond soccer.
The technology giant is interested in acquiring exclusive rights to screen EPL games in England when the next package (for the 2013-2016 seasons) is tendered. The Cupertino, Calif., company is set to wade into a bidding war with established television heavyweights such as Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky Sports, ESPN and Al Jazeera.
Using its platform of Apple TV, a small box costing less than $100 that allows users to stream internet content on their television screens, the company already showcases properties from Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. But this is different.
By going for full English television rights to the EPL, one of the most lucrative sports products in the world, Apple could be signaling the start of an assault on cable's turf.
Apple's interest was first revealed by Charles Sale of London's Daily Mail newspaper and was confirmed to ThePostGame by Apple sources on Thursday. The company is still in the early stage of formulating its bidding plans, but is keen to expand its sports packages and it sees soccer as a valuable way to gain a stronger footing in the British market.
"A lack of sports and news programming has always been one of the weaknesses of internet television," says technology expert Arik Hesseldahl, who has covered Apple for more than 10 years in his roles as senior editor of the AllThingsD blog (a partner of the Wall Street Journal) and columnist at Business Week. "Something like EPL rights could serve as a sports anchor to build upon.
"It could generate greater interest in Apple TV, especially in the UK, and be seen as a kind of testing ground for other markets. Apple has the money, they hold around $82 billion in cash reserves and short-term investments, and have shown they are prepared to pay whatever it takes to take positive strategic steps."
Consumers and the technology sector has responded to the Apple news with heavy interest, and there is a sense that this move, if successful, could forever change the way that live sports is consumed. Any successful rights deal involving would be likely to allow for subscribers to watch live games on not only Apple TV, but iPads and iPhones.
The flurry of excitement surrounding the Apple news was further intensified due to the ongoing rumors in the technology field of a new, secret Apple television product that may be released at some point over the next two years.
Before his death, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs spoke of a potential new product that would take the Apple streaming concept and put it inside an actual television. In one of his final interviews, Jobs claimed to have discovered the solution to formulating a successful marriage between the Internet and television.
"If such a product were to come out it could change the whole playing field,” Hesseldahl says. "No one knows for sure what they are planning, but if you had an actual television set with the ability to web-stream embedded in it, and users were still able to access their traditional cable or satellite functions, it could be huge.
"That is why Apple has to be taken seriously in any market. They have the money and the technological smarts to have a vision of how we will view things in the future. In many ways, they hold all the cards."
That might be a problem for ESPN, which charges cable subscribers whether they watch the network or not. Any reliable way to bypass cable is a potential threat to ESPN's bottom line, if not its incredible reach and popularity.
Apple's expected presence in the English EPL rights market could also drastically inflate the bidding price, one that already reached $2.5 billion for the last four-year package. Murdoch's Sky Sports has shown games ever since the EPL was formed in 1992, while Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster that used to focus on the Middle East, comes with huge fiscal backing and is also determined to spread its wings.
Al Jazeera has already acquired rights for soccer in the French domestic league and for Champions League matches in France, with plans to develop its content base further. It is also likely to put up a strong challenge for EPL rights in 2013.
Google shouldn't be discounted either, and ESPN is obviously a heavyweight already.
Whatever the outcome, the EPL should strengthen its standing as the wealthiest league in the world, and continue to attract many of the finest players on the planet to its leading clubs. Player salaries, already higher than any other competition -- including Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A, may rise again.
Off the field and on, we'll all be watching.
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