With the launch imminent of BT Sport, its most serious rival yet, Sky is planning to rebrand one of its channels for a single sport for the first time as it establishes Sky Ashes.
Sky Sports 2 will be renamed as Sky Ashes for 63 days over the summer to provide a home for Sky’s live Ashes coverage. It will also feature the women’s Ashes, domestic cricket and various magazine and review shows, with the aim of underlining the broadcaster’s commitment to cricket.
The rebranding operation takes in the period when BT Sport is expected to launch two sports channels.
BT Sport will offer its coverage, plus ESPN, free to any customer taking its broadband package. The move is expected to usher in a new era of competition for Sky, which has previously seen off ITV Digital and Setanta.
The broadcaster’s capture of exclusive cricket rights from 2006 was highly controversial, sparking a debate over whether it would damage the long-term future of the sport. But Sky and the England and Wales Cricket Board claim the decision has been vindicated, generating more money for elite and grassroots cricket.
Sky is expected to claim that its uninterrupted live coverage of the Ashesunderlines its commitment to the sport. On free-to-air television, coverage even of Ashes Tests could be interrupted for the news, horse racing or other sports.
It is not the first time Sky has offered a channel dedicated to a single sport – it launched an F1 channel following its capture of those rights – but it is the first time it has renamed one of its main sports channels.
Partly as a result of the threat from BT, Sky recently extended its ECB contract until the end of the decade and has also tied up a series of other cricket-rights deals. However, BT is likely to make a play for the rights to International Cricket Council tournaments that are expected to be auctioned shortly.
Sky recently added the former England captain Andrew Strauss to a line up that also includes Sir Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Nasser Hussain, David Gower and Michael Atherton.