By Kate Holton and Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) - England's multi-billion pound Premier League rights auction kicked off on Friday with soccer fans waiting to see if a digital giant such as Amazon would enter the fray against pay-TV players Sky and BT.
Officials running one of the most lucrative rights auctions in the world were assessing bids on Friday to determine who would screen matches showing Manchester United, City and Liverpool for the three seasons beginning 2019/20.
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The result could come later on Friday or, if it goes to a second round, on Tuesday.
Rupert Murdoch's Sky, which built its business around the English Premier League, and BT smashed forecasts in 2015 when they agreed to pay 5.1 billion pounds ($7.1 billion) for domestic rights over three years, 70 percent higher than the previous deal.
That enabled the league to go on a huge shopping spree, with players such as Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku (both bought by Manchester United) and Virgil van Dijk (signed by Liverpool) all joining clubs for at least 75 million pounds each.
Analysts do not expect to see such a jump in the cost this time however as both companies near the limit they can pay. One factor that could unnerve them is the speculation that Amazon could bid for rights to boost its Prime subscription service.
Amazon, the world's biggest retailer, has already bought rights for tennis and America's National Football League to bolster its Amazon Prime membership service which offers free delivery and content for a flat monthly fee.
All the groups have declined to comment on their approach to the auction.
The Premier League auction will make 200 live games available out of the 380 played each season, divided into seven lots, with five big packages and two smaller ones.
The auction will include occasions when a whole round of matches will be shown at the same time, a proposal that may be more attractive for a digital player than one of the pay TV groups.
Analysts believe Sky and BT would be happy to retain a similar line-up of games to the one they have now, with Sky showing Sunday afternoon matches that pit the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur against each other, while BT could retain Saturday games.
In 2015 Sky paid 4.2 billion pounds for its three-year package, equivalent to 11.1 million pounds per game, while BT paid 960 million pounds for its games, equivalent to 7.6 million pounds a match.
Both will be reluctant to overbid. Sky had to cut costs, hike prices and drop other sports to afford the previous auction while BT is yet to recover from an accounting scandal in Italy that forced it to issue a major profit warning.
"In the last auction Sky went into panic mode and clearly overspent," said industry analyst Paolo Pescatore from CCS Insight.
"I think for this auction Sky will take a far more sensible approach in the way they will bid for the packages they want."
($1 = 0.7206 pounds)
(Reporting by Kate Holton and Paul Sandle; Editing by Adrian Croft)