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Mobile World Congress: BT CEO defends strategy as content costs face scrutiny

The CEO of British telecoms giant BT Group defended his company's content strategy around live sports amid a growing debate about the ability to monetize exclusive and expensive sports rights.

Aside from Spain's Telefónica SA, BT is one of a few operators in Europe that has invested large amounts in owning content, rather than simply reselling it. But after a rocky year for BT, as it experienced a dip in earnings and a £530 million write-down at its scandal-hit Italian unit, skepticism is mounting around its ownership of pricey soccer rights.

"With sports, we are very happy with the progress we have made and we can see a very exciting future as we add more sports rights to our portfolio," BT CEO Gavin Patterson stressed during a Feb. 26 keynote at the annual Mobile World Congress.

In a saturated industry with limited growth opportunities, content does act as a differentiator for telecoms operators looking to complement their broadband businesses. For instance, BT Sport was recently awarded the rights to a range of Premier League soccer matches for a further three years at a cost of £295 million per season.

BT's package, however, amounts to 21% inflation per game so far and consists of 32 matches at a less attractive time slot, compared with 42 matches previously, analysts at Berenberg pointed out in a recent research note. They added that this raised questions about whether BT Sport was at risk of becoming a "sub-scale" player in content.

Also weighing in on the debate, Vodafone Group Plc's CEO recently shared his skepticism about the ability to monetize exclusive content rights, noting that soccer rights in particular had become increasingly more expensive over the years.

Similarly wary of content ownership, Verizon Communications Inc. CEO Lowell McAdam suggested during a recent earnings conference call that being a large distributor might be a "reasonable" substitute for owning content. As such, the company would not consider a large media play.

That said, with content rights only amounting to 5% of BT's operating expenses, Berenberg warned against "overstating" their impact.

BT said it is more committed to aggregating content outside of live sports, where its 2 million TV customers and just over 5 million BT Sport clients are a far cry from the client base of its larger competitor Sky plc and global over-the-top players Inc. and Netflix Inc.

"Netflix is proving to be a phenomenal proposition for customers. I do not think anyone who is running a network can be in denial of that," Patterson said.

So BT does not intend to be a producer of content. "In more general entertainment, our position is more of an aggregator," he clarified, concluding that the group's content strategy would mostly focus on aggregation.