In a display of tactics worthy of Nigel Benn or Prince Naseem, Sky Television head of programming David Elstein put up a strong defence at last week’s open debate on the future of sport and television.
The forum was timed to coincide with the Broadcasting Bill’s second reading in the House of Lords. As the pros and cons of the ever-rising price of exclusive television rights were debated, Labour peers argued for new amendments to the Bill, specifically to restrict Sky’s steely grip on many national – and international – sports events.
In the red corner, Labour – along with the terrestrial broadcasters – argues great British sporting events should be accessible by all: not just those able to afford or willing to rent cable and satellite systems. In the blue corner, Sky, supported by a host of top sporting names, argued its 100m a year-plus investment in TV sports rights is enabling many clubs and events to continue.
Sports bodies maintained they should have the right to decide their own deals without restriction – that sport is a legitimate and commercial business in its own right. “In the past we were paid well below the market rate,” said Test & Country Cricket Board marketing director Terry Blake.
But it’s more than just the money: “By increasing the coverage, we are preparing foundations for the next century. We want to invest in the future.” The TCCB’s current deals with cable and satellite companies has doubled airtime and trebled revenue for the sport, he claims.
Football Association commercial director Trevor Phillips added: “We feel that we have the ideal situation with a balance of live coverage of games on Sky and highlights on terrestrial TV.” Sports bodies such as the FA are better positioned to decide the long-term strategy of their sports than politicians, he observes.
As a developing sport, British Basketball League chief executive Mike Smith said, a partner is essential to increase media profile and outlets. No terrestrial broadcaster was willing to invest; Sky was.
So much for the pros. ITV, inevitably, argued the competitive market has increased the price of TV rights. ITV Network’s commercial director, Mike Southgate, predicted future rights-sharing partnerships – with Sky and the BBC. Then there’s the BBC, which argued that competition means it must pay above market rates.
Elstein countered: “Sport can now get all the airtime it needs. Quality of coverage on sports channels has provided a tremendous stimulus to all broadcasters.” Sky has not stolen major sports from the terrestrials, he insisted. ITV recently took TV rights to Formula One and the FA Cup final from the BBC.
The BBC is less enthusiastic because sport is traditionally a cheap programme genre, he claimed. And yet, he added: “The BBC is clearly willing to pay market rates for talent: for Noel Edmonds, French and Saunders, Hollywood movies, Pride and Prejudice, Sue Barker.”
At issue is whether Sky should face tougher restrictions, notably through the extension of “listed events” – those, such as the World Cup and Wimbledon finals, regarded as too precious for cable and satellite channels to be allowed to buy exclusive rights. And who should have the final say. Small wonder if the protectionists are being accused of swimming against the tide.