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BT Group may save hundreds of millions amid Premier League restart turmoil

As it cancels dividends totalling £3.25bn over three years, BT Group may find further savings as the Premier League restart remains uncertain.

BT Group PLC - BT Group may save hundreds of millions amid Premier League restart turmoil
Broadcasters will need to manage social distancing when games resume, image source: BT Group

BT Group PLC (LON:BT.A) could save hundreds of millions of much needed funds as the Premier League’s  ‘Project Restart’ plan continues to be scrutinised.

The telecoms and media group would be due a share of a £750mln refund from the league if the current season is ended before all fixtures are played or if it is cancelled outright.

Meanwhile, football clubs are also concerned that broadcast partners will want to redraw existing longer-term deals which, in aggregate, are worth around US$3bn a year.

TV money is believed to be among the key factors in complicated and controversial plans to restart the Premier League behind closed doors.

READ: BT cancels dividend for two years

Club owners, league administrators, politicians and team doctors continue to wrangle with the logistical, health and ethical challenges so that games can be played safely and without adding any burdens to the NHS.

Some £750mln of payments from broadcasters to the Premier League would need to be refunded if the league is not completed and/or the contracted numbers of games aren’t broadcast to TV subscribers.

These funds are believed to be pivotal to the survival of some clubs as the vast majority are run either at a loss or to just about break-even.

Most funds paid for the 2019/20 season have already been spent on player transfers, agent fees, and high-cost player wages.

Add to the mix a looming deadline of player contract expiry, which align at the end of June with the usual end to the football season, as well as the costs to cover non-playing staff (most of which won’t be back as games kick-off again), and it is clear that the game’s finances are jeopardy.

BT’s results, however, fail to show much in the way of encouragement.

At best, BT appears to be sticking at least loosely to the ‘Project Restart’ narrative.

In the results statement, it said: “We continue to hold our sports rights on the balance sheet at their existing carrying amounts. The majority relate to the Premier League and UEFA coverage and we understand that the intention is for the 2019/20 season to be completed.”

Media reports this week suggested that Premier League clubs are now worried that broadcasters such as BT and Sky will try to renegotiate the contract terms for the remaining two seasons on the current deal.

Struck in 2018, the current contracts see Sky Sports pay £1.19bn a year for 128 live games and BT Sport is paying £295mln for 32.

International broadcast deals are more varied in value and also the number of games that can be broadcast (for example, outside the UK there is no ‘blackout’ for the traditional Saturday 3pm kick-offs).

In all, the TV rights fees to the Premier League for next season (2020/21) are in the order of £3bn.

This adds to the league's dilemma if restart plans for the remainder of this year impede the conditions for next year’s contracts.

A glance at BT’s financial report suggests there's little room for forbearance among the Premier League's broadcast partners, though there has been speculation that broadcasters may simply seek more ‘value’, i.e. more games and/or greater player access.

Away from football, the telecoms and media bundler evidently has plenty of its own problems.

Cancelling the dividend – a highly unpopular move for BT’s shareholders – is expected to save the company £1bn in 2020 and £1.5bn in 2021, and when payments resume with a 50% haircut it will save another £750mln in 2022.

BT has so far taken a £95mln hit due to coronavirus, largely related to provisions for bad customer debts, and it is still far too early for the final cost of the pandemic to be known.

The group was already struggling with declining fixed-line and mobile telecoms revenue, regulation burdens, and, a need for major infrastructure investment and 5G installations.

In London BT shares have halved in value over the past twelve months – today they are 8.45% lower at 104.6p.

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