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Competition for Premier League TV rights hots up

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Al-Jazeera is reportedly vying with Sky and ESPN in the multi-billion pound action to secure live UK television rights to the Premier League.

The Guardian's sources indicate that a new player, thought to be rolling news broadcaster al-Jazeera, has joined current rights holders Sky and ESPN in the bidding, forcing it to a second round.

The companies are bidding for the UK TV and digital rights to 154 Premier Leagues games a season for three years from August 2013, 16 more per season than currently broadcast.

The extra 16 games are available because matches are being shifted away from 3pm kick-offs due to European ties, or police advice. The Premier League does not allow 3pm Saturday kick-offs to be shown live on TV as it wants to encourage attendance at games.

Bids for the rights must be in by lunchtime on Wednesday (June 13), and it is thought that the winners could even be announced on the same day, or early Thursday.

In the last auction in 2009, Sky acquired the four main rights packages without a challenge in the opening round, but a second round was required for two smaller packs that were eventually handed to Sky and Setanta UK.

Setanta UK collapsed later in the year with massive debts, leading to the rights to be snapped up by ESPN, which has offered Premier League coverage ever since on its branded channel.

The Disney-owned broadcaster is thought to be keen to retain, and even possibly increase its allocation of games.

The Guardian notes that the fact that the 2012 auction has gone to another round with no announcement on a clear winner so far from the league suggests that the competition is fierce.

No single broadcaster is allowed to hold more than 116 games under the bidding arrangement, meaning ESPN could increase its current allocation of 23 live matches up to 38, but the broadcaster is not thought to be keen to take on Sky.

Instead, it is believed that the second round has been prompted by a sterner challenge to Sky's dominance from the new bidder, thought to be al-Jazeera.

"The sense is there is a new bidder out there with a potentially serious offer and everyone thinks it is al-Jazeera, although no-one can be 100%," one industry source told the paper.

"The question is how many packages they are targeting, meaning Sky or ESPN."

The threat to Sky from al-Jazeera is credible, as the Qatar-based broadcaster already produces English-language commentary of football matches for expats throughout the Middle East on al-Jazeera +3.

Last year, al-Jazeera also surprised Canal+ by beating it to the live rights to various football tournaments in France, including Euro 2012 and Euro 2016, UEFA Champions League football and the FA Cup.

Al-Jazeera launched a sports channel in France on June 1.

Nasser al-Khelaifi, director of al-Jazeera Sports, recently said that the broadcaster was studying the Premier League tender closely, and evaluating "whether there is room for another sports channel" in the UK.

Sky, ESPN and al-Jazeera all declined to comment on the report.

The BBC has already agreed a new three-season deal to retain the free-to-air highlights to Premier Leagues games for its Match of the Day programme.

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