Britain has cleared media giants Sky and BT to go head-to-head in a multi-billion pound auction of English Premier League soccer rights when it rejected a last-minute appeal from Virgin Media.

Cable company Virgin, which is not expected to bid for rights, wanted a delay while Britain’s media regulator Ofcom investigated whether the way the matches are sold is anti-competitive.

Ofcom, alarmed at the runaway costs broadcasters have to pay to show top soccer games, said it would continue to examine whether the process breached British or European competition law.

But a gap of 17 months between the current auction and the start of the new contract meant changes could be made if it decided there were any infringement, it said, ruling that the process did not have to be delayed.

The first round of bidding for live domestic television rights for the three seasons from August 2016 is now set to proceed as planned on Friday.

Broadcasters including Sky and BT are expected to bid for the rights to 168 matches from the world's most lucrative domestic soccer competition, with no one buyer able to acquire more than 126 games.

Eurosport, majority owned by Discovery Communications, could also take part, perhaps by partnering with another bidder.

The current three-year deal costs broadcasters just over £3bn. Sky currently shows 116 games each season, while BT screens 38 matches.

BT has however secured all the live rights to the European Champions League from 2015-16 in one of the biggest blows to Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV operator since it launched more than 20 years ago.

Analysts have said the rivalry between the two companies could push up the Premier League price.

"We forecast the (annual) costs to rise by 45% to £1.46bn, with Sky paying £1.1bn per year to retain a majority of the rights," UBS said in a recent note.

Virgin, which carries Sky and BT channels on its platform, has argued that the structure of the auction, in terms of how many games are shown, drives up the prices that broadcasters have to pay.

The potential cost has weighed on the share prices of both sides, although there are factors limiting how much either can afford.

Sky has recently bought Murdoch's TV operations in Germany and Italy, increasing its debt, while BT faces greater regulatory scrutiny over it sports channels, which it provides as part of its broadband product.

Virgin Media is owned by Liberty Global International, which also owns UPC in Ireland.