There is something satisfyingly symmetrical about Manchester United being bottom of the Premier League after two matches played. Back in 1992, in the new league’s first season, the Red Devils were also bottom of the division – which then had 22 teams rather than 20 – after defeats to Sheffield United and Everton. But that Manchester United team, under the guidance of Alex Ferguson, went on to win the inaugural Premier League title. It would take a miracle of unprecedented proportions for Erik ten Hag’s team to overhaul their Manchester rivals, City, in the 2022-23 season.
The rise of City, who languished in the third tier of English football as United stormed their way to an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League titles in 1999, is, of course, largely down to money. The huge, and cleverly managed, investments made in the club by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan over the last decade has paid off in spades. That investment would not have been made without the riches, monetary and in terms of branding, promised by the Premier League, which is the most watched sports league in the world.
Those riches and that global reach would not have been made possible, of course, . It was the deal struck between Sky TV and Luxembourg’s SES Astra back in 1988 that allowed Rupert Murdoch’s nascent company to snap up the first broadcast rights for the Premier League.
As an avid football fan myself, I’m proud that our ASTRA satellites have played an important role in transmitting all the excitement of the EPL in crystal-clear HD and UHD quality directly to viewers’ homes for the last 30 years.
Officially founded on 1st March 1985, Société Européenne de Satellites was the result of the tenacity of former prime minister Pierre Werner and then incumbent Jacques Santer for Luxembourg to become a key player in the future of broadcasting and help further diversify its economy. The creation of the company had faced stiff opposition from some local politicians and also from neighbouring governments – the French, in particular, were wary that Astra would become a vehicle for ‘US cultural imperialism’. Indeed, the French minister of communications even threatened to send up some sort of spoiling signal to prevent Astra signals from being received by its customers.
But the Luxembourg government proved determined and Santer, in particular, was firmly behind the project. He created legislation to underwrite the financial risks of the project to the tune of around €90m. And as well as the state, Luxembourg’s state savings bank also took shares in the company.
Nevertheless, at the company’s launch, in the words of then commercial director Marcus Bicknell, it had “no money, no frequencies, no regulatory approval, no launch slot, no TV channels, no clients, no reception equipment and no viewers. Otherwise, everything was perfect.”
That would change with an agreement for American specialist company RCA Astro to build Astra 1A, which was the first European medium-powered satellite. Crucially, the new satellite’s configuration would give it a pan-European footprint that significantly boosted its commercial appeal.
Astra simply proposed the right thing at the right moment.
As Bicknell is quoted as saying in the excellent book High Above: The untold story of Astra, Europe's leading satellite company, by hosting 16 channels that could reach millions of homes at relatively low cost, “Astra simply proposed the right thing at the right moment…[that] suddenly rang the right alarm bells with those entrepreneurial broadcasters”.
One of those entrepreneurial broadcasters was Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky TV became the first major client to sign up. Chief sportswriter for The Guardian Barney Ronay, in a recent article on the 30th anniversary of the Premier League called the SES-Sky agreement “a subsidiary benefit for the UK of EU membership”.
Ground-breaking and innovative
And as SES CEO Steve Collar told Delano: “The ground-breaking and innovative sports broadcasting of Sky UK, a valued customer of SES for four decades, has been an ever-present feature in growing the EPL into a national and then international sensation, and to its position now as one of the most exciting and valuable sports properties in the world.”
But the launch of the satellite was itself a fraught affair. Ariane had been encountering problems with its rockets and it had been grounded in 1987. Finally, amid a tense atmosphere after an attempt had failed 24 hours earlier, Astra 1A was launched aboard an Ariane 4 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana on 10 December 1988. Pierre Werner, who would become president of the board of SES, and Crown Prince Henri were at the launch.
British electronics company, Amstrad, headed by Alan Sugar, was selected to manufacture the dishes and decoders, which soon also came tumbling down in price allowing more and more households to decide that they could afford subscriptions.
The rest, as they say, is history. And although the Premier League is so in thrall to the broadcasters that it has, in the words of Ronay, “turned itself inside-out for television…” the league continues to reap the rewards of its global television reach with broadcast income set to hit £10bn over the next three seasons.
“Sky has set the standards that others follow,” says Collar. “As an avid football fan myself, I’m proud that our ASTRA satellites have played an important role in transmitting all the excitement of the EPL in crystal-clear HD and UHD quality directly to viewers’ homes for the last 30 years.”
And SES continues to play a major role. As recently as February 2021, Sky UK extended its contract with SES for satellite capacity in a new agreement adding more than €90m in secured backlog. The two companies already had a contract for capacity that ran through 2027.
“SES has been a valued partner to Sky for decades and this agreement represents the latest step in a long and successful relationship,” Patrick Behar, Chief Business Officer at Sky UK said at the time.