Should major sporting events be reserved for free-to-air TV?

November 13, 2009

Steven Barnett-Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and has written extensively about the Sky deal and cricket for the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. The opinions expressed are his own.-

David Davies’ review panel on UK sport’s “crown jewels” – the list of sporting events which have to be reserved for free-to-air television – has proposed adding significantly to the existing list of 10 events.

Most controversially it wants to see cricket’s Ashes Test matches, part of the package sold to Sky five years ago, back on mainstream television. Given its terms of enquiry, the Davies panel’s report was bound to be either lame or contentious. Thankfully, they have chosen contentious.

We’ll be hearing some cries of anguish from Sky over the next few weeks, but that’s to be expected. BSkyB’s hugely successful business model depends on exclusive access to sport, and you can’t blame Rupert Murdoch for understanding long ago the commodity value of exclusive live sport on television. He famously told an annual meeting of News Corp in 1996 that sport was to be the “battering ram” for expansion of his global pay television network.

And Sky does it brilliantly: three sports channels, pioneering innovations in coverage and much more domestic and international sport on offer than than ever before. But this array of sporting choice comes at a price – in excess of 600 pounds per year if you want it all. Most people don’t: pay TV in Britain is still a minority activity.

That shifts the focus of responsibility to the sports bodies – and this is where the real challenge lies. Can they be trusted to represent the wider public interest of universal audience access for their blue riband events?

Increasingly the answer is no, as cricket eloquently demonstrated. The county game was struggling and Sky made an offer in 2004 that no terrestrial broadcaster could reasonably match. Result: Test cricket vanished from most viewers’ screens, and a peak viewing figure of 7.4 million on Channel 4 when England won the Ashes in 2005 plunged to just 1.9 million this year on Sky – beaten even by the 2.3 million who were watching Songs of Praise on BBC1 at the same time.

Exactly the same happened in Ireland when rugby’s Heineken Cup switched from Irish national broadcaster RTE to Sky Sports 3 years ago and an audience of 255,000 fell to 47,000. When a sport migrates from free-to-air to subscription television, there is a simple algorithm: it will lose around three quarters of its audience.

Does it matter? In a debate dominated by sports governing bodies and the big beasts of pay TV, the arguments of ordinary sports fans tend to be drowned out. So here are three examples of the cultural damage of allowing major events to migrate to pay TV.

First, it removes major sport from exposure to the maximum number of people. Television fuels participation and aspiration, particularly of children. Public tennis courts are full during Wimbledon fortnight, and I have lost count of the number of eventual sporting champions who describe the moment they saw an inspirational performance on television which galvanised them into excelling at that particular sport. Even a few minutes of peak-time mass audience exposure can have an astonishing impact on generating popular interest.

Second, there is the shared national experience, where great sporting events create and cement a sense of national identity. Even non sports fans recognise a tangible feel- good factor that follows national sporting success. And many commented on how this year’s Ashes success was a damp squib compared to four years ago.

Third, those most likely to be deprived of access to these major sporting events are the most disadvantaged sections of society – pensioners, the low paid, the unemployed, the disabled. Do we believe as a nation that this is fair?

We will hear plenty of claims from sports bodies about the huge investment in grass roots initiatives being funded by television’s money, some of which will be true. But they all managed before Sky arrived, and there is a compelling response to this much-repeated argument from the other side of the world.

Australia has listed every rugby league and union test match, every Ashes test match and one-day international in Australia; every round of the Australian and British golf opens; Wimbledon and the Australian Open tennis championships; and even international netball matches. Not to mention soccer, motor racing, the Melbourne Cup and the Commonwealth Games.

That’s a population one third the size of ours which is hardly noted for its lack of sporting success or grass-roots participation. It’s a nation that understands the cultural significance of sport and the role of universal free to air television in driving that culture. It’s time we did the same in Britain.

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