Fair game for Murdoch’s Sky?

It’s no surprise to find MPs venting their spleen against Rupert Murdoch’s Rugby Super League. Hobbling the media titan is, after all, an evergreen political issue. Besides, some of the concerns being raised by their irate constituents are genuine enough. Local clubs will fall by the wayside if the Murdoch deal goes through. But then again, they would have anyway. Nostalgia is no antidote to technical insolvency, which is what a lot of clubs face. Murdoch’s plan at least has the merit of realism.

There are, however, a number of other, equally genuine, issues which sponsors and advertisers need to address. True, putting the game on a firmer, broader financial footing sounds like good news for practically everyone. All that extra international TV coverage is surely mannah from heaven, isn’t it? Well, not necessarily. Murdoch’s agenda in putting the deal together is very different to the prevailing ones of a sports governing body, or for that matter events sponsors. And make no mistake, if the deal goes through, Murdoch’s views are the ones which will count.

His main concern is to attract extra viewers – preferably paying ones – and thereby to maximise revenue. Of course, he’s not against sponsorship: quite the contrary. What he has in mind can be most clearly seen at work on Sky Sport, and, in particular, in coverage of the Premier League. The broadcast rights offer a great deal for Ford. But where exactly do event sponsors fit into this picture?

Not, of course, that rugby is alone in receiving the Murdoch treatment. It is simply the latest – almost certainly not the last – domino in his TV sports strategy, a strategy which already encompasses soccer (the Premier League), golf and American football. And here again there are important implications.

To the extent that this strategy is successful (and it’s not doing badly so far), advertisers should also be wary. Each salami-sliced sport appearing on BSkyB is one less ratings opportunity on ITV or Channel 4. Audiences will shrink, initially at least, because they have to cough up. And while pay TV channels may not eschew advertising, it will tend to be a secondary revenue stream.

On the plus side, joint ventures la Murdoch greatly increase potential funding for sports. It is up to advertisers (increasingly in their sponsorship guise) to get into strategic early alliances. Otherwise they will find they pay a heavy price.

MPs hit out at Murdoch deal, page 8; analysis, page 21

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