Culture Secretary faces tough test over sports ‘Crown Jewels’

So the ball is back in Chris Smith’s court – if not yet over the line. The emotional issue of sport’s “Crown Jewels”, the listed sports events, is a googly of Shane Warne-like proportions for the Culture, Media & Sport Secretary.

Mr Smith – to mix the sporting metaphors – had kicked the ball elegantly into touch, passing it to a working group, including Jack Charlton, Steve Cram and Michael Parkinson, under the chairmanship of commercial radio’s first lord, Jimmy Gordon. Now they’ve passed it back, with a vicious top-spin.

The committee’s report recommends letting BSkyB and other pay channels bid for live coverage of England test matches and many football World Cup games, which at present are effectively preserved for terrestrial TV. Predictably, this has not pleased the “great undished”, or the BBC.

But the report also recommends giving greater protection to some events, by adding the finals of the European Football Championships and home nation World Cup matches to the Crown Jewels. And, by suggesting there should be a “B” list, it has tried to ensure that several other events which can already be sold to cable and satellite – like the Ryder Cup, Five Nations rugby and most Wimbledon matches – must also be made available in some form on terrestrial TV and radio.

The report is, in fact, a thoughtful document, which attempts not merely to reconcile the conflicting views of most sports fans (who want free TV sport) and sports authorities (which want a free TV sport market), but also those non-sports fans who don’t want their free-to-air channels clogged up with hour upon hour of cricket, tennis and football.

This last constituency is often overlooked in the debate, and never more obviously so than in an entertaining phone-in on Radio 5 Live last year. The studio guests were a sports writer and a former player, who naturally had strong feelings on the issue. When, after almost an hour, a self-confessed non-sports fan was let onto the air, one guest said he couldn’t understand why he was calling – this wasn’t an issue for him.

Yet as we move into the multichannel digital age, this is an issue that affects everybody. For years, sports fans have had to share the airwaves with non-sports fans, and the broadcasters’ attempts to reconcile their conflicting demands have caused ructions in households throughout the land.

For years, the BBC and ITV happily devoted hours of airtime to the same matches, often transmitting the same pictures, determined they should both have the right to cover the FA Cup Final, or the World Cup, or the Olympics – regardless of those viewers who hated sport.

Now there’s no longer a scarcity of TV channels – in fact, quite the reverse – it is possible to serve the wishes both of sports fans and non-sports fans, provided they can afford, and are willing, to pay for that privilege.

Lord Gordon’s report should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the way television – and its relationship with its audience – is going to change over the next ten years. For it spells out how terrestrial channels may have to change their role in the age of multichannel TV, stating: “Terrestrial TV services, with an obligation to provide a wide range of programming, cannot or should not be able to cover lengthy sporting events in full, without unacceptable disruption to normal services and consequential disappointment for viewers who don’t like the sport in question.

“The logical place for complete live coverage of events of long duration must surely be on channels specifically catering for sport and, perhaps at some point in the future, only for some individual sports. The fact that one has to pay for access to such a service should not be any more offensive to the devotee of the sport than the fact that an admission charge would be made for entry to the event itself.”

BBC executives might be galled at being told how to schedule their channels by a commercial radio boss, even one as distinguished as Lord Gordon. They are not alone.

Tim de Lisle, the editor of Wisden cricket monthly, suggested on Radio 5 Live this was a bit of a cheek. He argued that the Corporation had managed its coverage successfully up to now – thanks to having two channels – and claimed there was a huge benefit to the game, in bringing test cricket to a young audience.

The committee acknowledges that some sports events have such “national resonance” that they should remain on terrestrial TV, where their widespread enjoyment is “a force for cohesion in society”. It just doesn’t believe test match cricket is one of them, partly because the matches go on for such a long time. Instead, it suggests they should be put on the “B” list, to ensure they get some coverage on terrestrial channels.

Of course, even if Mr Smith accepts the group’s recommendation, it does not mean the tests will leave the BBC. If Sky enters the bidding, the BBC would have to offer more money – and though its pockets are not as deep as Sky’s, an increased offer might persuade the England & Wales Cricket Board to keep some, if not all, test coverage on terrestrial TV.

For sports bodies are aware that TV is not their only source of income – and event sponsors, and those which advertise on hoardings or shirts, want the widest possible exposure.

Indeed, Lord Gordon and his group draw attention to what they call the “salutory lesson” of the Scottish Open Golf Championships. Sponsored by Bell’s whisky and taking place at Gleneagles, it had grown in importance over the years. When the organiser sold the exclusive live TV rights to Sky, the sponsors withdrew at the end of their contract and the event was left without a sponsor or venue. It was played for one further year at Carnoustie and then abandoned.

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