This is one contest the BBC can’t afford to lose

Greg Dyke was unshaken by the shock departure of the BBC’s head of sport. But losing rights to Premier League highlights would be a huge blow.

Some observers probably saw a neat symmetry in Mike Miller quitting the BBC for an Internet company the day after technology stocks tumbled on Wall Street. This is, after all, the man who, three weeks after joining the Beeb from Channel 4 as controller of television sport in 1998, lost the broadcast right to Test Match cricket – BBC Sport’s family silver – to his old employer.

It was not his fault, but after that Miller always faced an uphill battle to prove himself. Ironically, his resignation ten days ago – he rang Greg Dyke while the new BBC director-general watched his beloved Manchester United beat Sunderland 4-0 – could, in fact, coincide with a new era for BBC Sport.

Dyke’s planned overhaul of the BBC has been much publicised. But one significant change which received little mention – partly because BBC Sport is seen as being in terminal decline in some quarters – is that, for the first time in living memory, the Corporation will have a director of sport with a place at the senior management table and unprecedented access to the director-general.

Under the restructure it is unlikely that Miller will be replaced, rather his role will be subsumed into that of the new sports supremo.

“He [Miller] has had a hard time – he toughed it out – but he has never really got his head around the BBC and the way it works,” says one insider. “Dyke sees sport as fundamentally important and wants a passionate character to run the sports division. The way Dyke does things he would not have chosen Miller as the sports supremo.”

In the past 18 months, Miller – who is joining Worldsport.com as editorial director – has become the target of every dewy-eyed sports columnist wanting a return to the days when footballers earned the minimum wage, wore shorts made out of parachute material and kicked a ball made out of a real sheep’s bladder. In his defence, the rot had set in a long time before Miller arrived. There has been a steady stream of departures from BBC Sport in the past five years, from the very public Des Lynam to the far more significant Brian Barwick, who quit as controller of BBC Sport to join ITV. “Disillusionment with the leadership” is how it is described by one source.

The official BBC line is that the Dyke evolution means that “within the BBC the importance of sport has now been recognised”. Which begs one to ask why nobody recognised the importance before of an area providing 20 per cent of output across BBC1, BBC2 and BBC Radio.

Clive Jones, currently chief executive at Carlton, is tipped to take the job of director of sport. There is speculation that he has already been offered it but will not move until Carlton’s merger with either United News & Media or Granada is completed. The main internal candidate, and the one many BBC insiders would prefer, is Bob Shennan, the current head of production.

But who would want the job? The BBC covers as many as 50 sports each year on a budget of just &£150m and this sum is expected to fund the cost of the production and broadcast of events, as well as the purchase of television and radio rights.

Even taking into account additional funding to cover this year’s Olympic Games in Sydney, for example, it is still a measly sum in comparison with the money available to its satellite, cable and, on occasions, terrestrial rivals. Surely, if you want to be involved in top-league sport, you would join the rivals before the BBC?

The BBC still has some big events – in June it will broadcast 16 Euro 2000 football matches; in July it has exclusive live coverage of Wimbledon; the Olympics follow in September with a share of the Rugby League World Cup in October. It has also recently re-negotiated a deal for exclusive radio rights to English cricket, a contract many expected it to lose to the deep pockets at TalkSport.

But when it comes to live football, the BBC is an also-ran. There are two main contracts being negotiated at the moment. One, for the rights to Premier League games, is likely to generate &£2bn; the second, the deal to broadcast England games and the FA Cup – for which the FA is seeking a total of &£350m. The best the BBC can hope for from these talks is to retain highlights of the Premier League plus, perhaps, a deal to show some live FA Cup ties.

As a public service broadcaster the BBC is hamstrung. It cannot justify spending billions on football. The cost of buying each live Premiership game could soon top &£5m. For the BBC, the economics wouldn’t make sense – there is no choice between a single Premiership match and a drama series such as Gormenghast.

The rights deal will be announced in June, long before any BBC director of sport is likely to be appointed. A lot has been said about how essential it is for BSkyB to retain the contract, but if the BBC doesn’t secure the highlights deal, it will be the end of Match of the Day and with it will go some of its talent – Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen have already been linked with ITV.

More significantly, it will blow a huge hole through the claims that sport is now “more important” under Dyke.

Tom O’Sullivan was formerly deputy editor of Marketing Week.

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