Slim opportunity for BBC to score

Dyke has his work cut out, pitching against Sky for Premiership rights. Will this lead to the BBC’s sports coverage declining further? asks Roger Baird

When Greg Dyke was made director general of the BBC two weeks ago, he let it be known that he wanted to boost the corporation’s declining sports coverage.

To enhance its reputation in sport, the BBC must grab a further share of domestic football rights once, as those close to the industry expect, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) case now at the Restricted Practices Court, forces the Premiership to allow more games to be broadcast.

Last week, as if to illustrate what a tough job Dyke faces, the BBC lost the radio broadcast rights to England’s overseas cricket tour of Pakistan in 2001 to national commercial speech station Talk Radio. In compensation, Radio 5 Live won the right to extend its coverage of the Football League and Worthington Cup matches to 2002.

In the seven years since Sir John Birt became director general, sports broadcast rights have become the most competitive of all TV markets. Broadcasters, governing bodies, sports agencies, and sponsors all compete for major sports properties that have multiplied in value year after year.

In 1983, ITV and the BBC paid &£2.6m to televise five live League Division One games each; the existing BSkyB/BBC contract with the Premier League is worth &£743m.

Birt by his own admission is no sports fan, and the BBC has lost control of an array of major sports properties. Things are expected to change under Dyke. BBC controller of TV sport Mike Miller sums up the view in the corporation’s sports department: “There is no doubt that Dyke understands the emotional and dramatic effect of sport on TV. His past record on bidding for sports properties shows that he understands this more than Birt.”

However, things are already changing. Miller points to the BBC’s acquisition of Wimbledon for &£50m for five years as proof that the corporation has not given up on sport. And last year it acquired UK indoor and outdoor athletics meetings for &£15m over five years.

“BBC sports are already assertive. But the market is very different to ten years ago. There are more networks out there and the governing bodies and rights holders know they can get more for their properties,” he says.

Miller adds that the corporation is also committed to football, in particular Match of the Day, and he never wants it to slip off the air as it did for two years in the middle of the decade.

Paul Vaughan, senior vice-president of sports agency Advantage, says: “The BBC has to be more focused. It can no longer be all things to all people.”

This situation may be forced on the corporation sooner than it might wish.

The result of the OFT inquiry, into whether the Premier League acts as a cartel when selling its sports rights, is due later this summer. This case is important because the yardstick of any broadcaster’s competence in the sport’s market in the UK, or anywhere in Europe, is the quality of its football coverage.

A major 60 game live package of the type Sky has with the Premier League is likely to stay, according to some predictions. But the court is likely to rule that there should be more opportunities for the viewer to see the 700 Premiership games that fall outside this contract.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to allow more highlights packages, and possibly a limited number of live games, to be sold to broadcasters.

The second move will be to give its blessing to a TV season ticket scheme that will allow fans to follow their clubs on specially set up channels, or on existing stations, for a fee of about &£10 a game. However, only the biggest clubs, such as Arsenal, Newcastle, Liverpool, and of course Manchester United, could make this system financially viable.

This new landscape may break Sky’s exclusive grip on Premiership football. And as one observer points out: “In a normal situation you pay less for non-exclusive deals. But Sky cannot afford not to carry football. It will pay whatever it takes for whatever it can get.”

If the OFT case allows more Premiership games to be screened, it will lead to a system where games will be screened throughout the week and broadcasters will pitch in to “own” a particular day.

Vaughan adds: “In this situation the BBC will have to make hard choices. It might look at whether to replace a generic sports show, such as Grandstand, in order to pay for one night of live football a week.”

In the UK, quality sports coverage boils down to the quality of a broadcaster’s football coverage. This draws advertisers and sponsors to a channel. And it is this, along with movies, that led to BSkyB establishing itself relatively quickly. Conversely it was the absence of sport, in part, that led to Channel 4 and Channel 5 taking so long to get off the mark.

Dyke will have to dig deep into the BBC’s purse, consider some unpalatable choices, and box clever, if he is to maintain, let alone extend, the BBC’s reputation in sport.

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