LONDON (Reuters) - More than 1 million households have signed up to take the new sports service from Britain's telecom operator BT in what it said was an endorsement of the strategy to use pay-TV to protect its traditional business.
The former telecoms monopoly will go head-to-head with the Rupert Murdoch-founded BSkyB this weekend with the start of the new English Premier League after it shocked the industry by winning the rights to premium sports last year.
The 168-year-old BT has agreed to pay 246 million pounds ($382 million) per season to show 38 live soccer matches, putting it up against the dominant pay-TV group BSkyB which has the rights to 116 games per season.
As part of its plan to defend its key broadband business, BT will supply the new sports channels free to its existing broadband customers who renew their contracts or to those who sign up as new customers for BT broadband.
The more than 1 million households it has added since it started taking orders in May is made up of existing and new broadband customers, and those BSkyB satellite customers who are paying extra to also take BT channels. It did not break out how many new broadband customers it has attracted.
BT said in July that more than 500,000 households had signed up to the new sports service, which indicates the rate of people joining has accelerated ahead of the start of the new soccer season.
By comparison, BSkyB has 10.4 million TV subscribers, however that includes those on basic TV packages as well as Sky Sports.
"We always said that BT Sport would help us retain and attract broadband customers and that is proving to be the case," said John Petter, the managing director of the BT consumer division. "We are rewarding our customers for their loyalty and the strategy is working."
Separately, a person familiar with the situation said the group was close to agreeing a wholesale deal with cable operator Virgin Media. Any wholesale deal would increase the number of viewers watching the channels, and allow BT to charge more to advertisers.
Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Erica Billingham