As arguments over sports rights become more intense, confusion continues to grow. Should sport be protected by politicians, or its destiny be left to the commercial market? What’s best for sport? What is best for the viewers? For every interested party there is a different solution.
Sport can be divided into two categories: football and the rest. Football will drive pay-per-view, whether it is BSkyB or the clubs which own the rights. Apart from the odd big boxing night, other sports which dream of pay-per-view may be disappointed.
In the late Seventies, when the BBC and ITV were invited by the Football Association and the Football League to carve up coverage between them, less than ten per cent of sports budgets were spent on football. What do channels spend today on the sport? Seventy per cent?
Never before have major sports depended so much on TV income. Where would football be without it? Yet as the clubs spend, spend, spend, they should know that the odd extra billion will not always be round the corner. There is a limit to what subscribers will pay, and judging from the reaction to Sky’s latest price hike, it may have been reached.
Now cricket would like to jump onto what it perceives as the bandwagon. Take the money from Sky, and to hell with Parliament and its protected events, and to hell with the audience. Surely a test match must remain a shared national experience. Football has much to thank Sky for, yet it is scandalous that live coverage of England’s World Cup qualifiers is denied to the majority of the population. And would there have been the same euphoria if Euro 96 had not been seen on BBC and ITV?
The Government and European Union are right to safeguard events of national interest. It’s a short list: FA and Scottish Cup Finals; World Cup Finals; Olympic Games; The Derby; Grand National; Wimbledon Finals; England Test Matches.
Political protection is not, however, everything. Broadcasters wanting to be exclusively “live” must pay big money. Almost all public service broadcasters, including the BBC, are strapped for cash. Many have to make choices because they can’t afford the lot. To make ends meet, they may be forced to sub-license some of their rights to competing channels.
So, in some countries, protected events may not be seen on terrestrial TV at all. This is where satellite channels, including pan-European ones, can come to the rescue. Apart from money, what Eurosport can offer is extensive, guaranteed pan-European coverage. For the many sports being squeezed because all the cash is going to the few, exposure is critical for them and their sponsors. Fortunately for the audiences, there is some enlightenment at the top – the International Olympic Committee is one body which recognises the importance of audience reach.
Ever the optimist, I believe broadcasters will exercise common sense before it’s too late. There are already signs that the different services appreciate the needs to co-exist, not to fight to the death. So most major international and national events will be shown terrestrially. Whoever enjoys exclusivity will make highlights available to other channels. That makes sense for sport and for the viewers, and will probably happen without further government pressure.