Sporting chances

By Julian Clover
November 20, 2009 09.37 UK

Listed events cause debate for sports bodies, broadcasters and the viewing public, but there can only be one winner, writes Julian Clover.

Give most people the choice of paying for a sports event or watching it free of charge and the vast majority will pick the latter. Sport is important both to the legacy broadcasters that even after digital switchover continue to dominate the terrestrial landscape and to the relative newcomers within the pay-TV sector that want to build both audiences and revenues.

The UK recently published a review of listed sports events, the so-called Crown Jewells, a list of events that should be available to the nation through free to view television. This means the ‘Qualifying channels’ designated by Ofcom that reach 95% of the population, in other words BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five.

By the time of digital switchover in 2012 these channels will be part of a multiplex that also includes BBC Three, BBC Four, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News, ITV2, ITV3, More4 and E4. Note the names though, as each of the channels is directly related to one of the Big Five that continue to dominate UK broadcasting.

So far none of these channels have approached Ofcom to obtain qualifying status – and even in these football obsessed times it would be unlikely for CBeebies to want to screen the FA Cup Final – but there are more channels waiting in the wings. The report notes that soon there will be channels like Virgin 1 and Sky Sports News that would be able to reach 90% of the population.

Much of the news reporting of the review, headed by former FA executive director and BBC sports broadcaster David Davies, centred on The Ashes, the pinnacle of cricket, between English and Australia that takes place on home soil every four years.

In 2005, when Channel 4 covered The Ashes, the average audience was 2.4 million. This year the audience on Sky Sports had fallen to 0.6 million. In the 1970s, when the choice was cricket or Testcard F, it is not surprising the audiences were higher still.

The England and Wales Cricket Board asked for the Test Matches to be taken off the list so that they could sell the rights for a higher amount. The ECB effectively sells its matches like movie rights, Sky is starting a four-year £300m deal that includes the next Ashes tour in 2013, but also women’s and under 19 cricket. A movie studio would sell a blockbuster in a package with films that were pulled from the cinema after less than a fortnight.

The argument that the sport needs to be seen on national television so that the young can watch their heroes in action is a sound one, but one event every four years is not going to achieve this, and such a move reduces the value for rights holder and pay-TV broadcaster alike.

Previous rounds of cricket rights have seen matches shared between Channel 4 and Sky and before that the BBC. So why not split off something a little less lucrative? If you live in Wales this has already begun to happen. Next year S4C will carry live coverage of some Glamorgan matches, in the Welsh language, as has also been the case for Rugby Union and Rugby League.