Right to watch?

Clare Balding holding a microphone

Clare Balding presented from Aintree for the last time on Saturday. Photo: CharlesFred

Saturday saw the end of an era, the end of the Grand National on BBC television (well for four years at least). The loss of the TV rights to Channel 4 means that as of 2013, there will be no horse racing on BBC television. The Derby and Ascot festival have also been lost, so Channel 4 will be the sole source of racing on terrestrial television.

Admittedly I’m not the biggest racing fan you’re likely to meet, so to say that this passing on of the ‘baton’ hasn’t really troubled me, is somewhat of an understatement. Though,  as the Grand National is most people’s solitary dealing with the ‘gee-gees’ all year, I would wager that the news is unlikely to have affected all but the most ardent of racegoers. As long as the public can still watch the race on Channel 4, then I doubt they are too upset that Clare Balding has lost her most beloved presenting job.

The BBC’s inability to hold onto the coverage does highlight the wider issue of the their shrinking sports portfolio though. Not only has the racing been lost, but the athletics and Paralympics coverage has made the switch to C4, the French Open tennis is now on ITVSky have bought the BBC out of the two remaining years of their exclusive Formula 1 deal, and most recently Sky have also acquired exclusive rights to the BMW PGA Championships and the Scottish Open golf.

Cuts at the BBC have forced them to streamline their sporting commitments and prioritise where the licence fee income is spent. Reports at the time suggested that the corporation sacrificed their exclusive F1 rights to maintain their coverage of the full Wimbledon fortnight. Now this is a very simplistic view to take, but were I to be given the choice between a full F1 season live and exclusive on the BBC, but with limited Wimbledon coverage, or the situation we have now, then I would opt for the latter every time.

I appreciate there were a huge number of F1 fans incredibly upset at being forced to pay for something that they previously received effectively ‘free’. However, I believe the general public feel a greater attachment to the events in SW19 every summer, than they do to the millionaires playground of F1, a view the BBC clearly share.

In an ideal world the BBC would win the bidding for all television rights, for every sport, and still find space to broadcast a diverse array of programming to keep all license fee payers happy. This simply is not possible though, not only do the BBC work within a limited budget, they simply don’t have space to give exposure to every sport. From football fans, to handball fans, to arts documentaries fans, the BBC face an impossible task in satisfying everyone.

Spokespeople for minority sports often claim that their sports suffer from a lack of exposure, unfortunately that is just the way of the world. Money is spent where the demand is largest, and demand is most commonly at its largest where there is a history and tradition, or when there is success to be celebrated. Take cycling for example, not traditionally a major sport in Britain; British Cycling have built a highly successful team, and as such they now have a very marketable product. If minority sports want more exposure then they need to be successful first, then use the exposure that brings to fund and drive further success. At a time when the world’s best golfers are British, and even they are complaining that the BBC are cutting their commitment to golf, why should handball expect to compete?

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori for Cricket on Five. Photo: HNM_1977

It should also be noted that, though many people are upset when the BBC loses sports rights to competitors, there are other sports on terrestrial channels that are covered very well. Channel 4, along with Sunset + Vine, did a fine job in revolutionising cricket coverage before it moved to Sky, and ITV, with VSquared TV, have done a fantastic job with their Tour de France output.

So yes it is a shame to see the Grand National switch to Channel 4, and even more of a shame to lose other sporting occasions from terrestrial television completely, but unfortunately that is just the way it is. I would love to be able to watch test cricket on television for free, but who is to say that England’s ascent to world number 1 status would have occurred without the extra funds the Sky deal brought to the ECB?

It is these dilemmas that lead to the list of sports ‘crown jewels’ being created. The list dictates which sporting events are so important to the nation that they must be kept on free-to-air television. In its current guise the groups are as follows:

Group A – full live coverage protected

Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
European Football Championship finals
FA Cup final
Scottish FA Cup final (protected in Scotland)
Grand National
Epsom Derby
Wimbledon tennis finals
Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
Rugby World Cup final

Group B – highlights only on free-to-air TV

England’s home cricket Test matches
Other matches, excluding finals, at Wimbledon Championships
Other matches, excluding final, at Rugby World Cup
Six Nations matches involving home countries
Commonwealth Games
World Athletics Championships
Cricket World Cup – final, semi-finals and matches involving home nations
Ryder Cup
Open golf championship

Source – BBC, Panel names free-to-air choices

As we can see there aren’t actually many sporting occasions deemed so important to the nation that we shouldn’t have to pay for them. Yes it’s nice for sports lovers to pick and choose what they watch, and there is a strong argument that sports participation would benefit from increased exposure on terrestrial television. But governing bodies have to stay afloat somehow, and if they can put television money into grass-roots initiatives then maybe that is a better option?

In 2009 the list was reviewed and a new one proposed:

Summer Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
Uefa European Championship finals
Grand National
FA Cup final (England, Wales and Northern Ireland only)
Scottish FA Cup (Scotland)
Home and away football qualifiers for World Cup and European Championship (listed only in home nation to which they relate)
Wimbledon Championship (in its entirety)
Open golf championship
Cricket’s home Ashes Test matches
Rugby World Cup tournament
Wales matches in Six Nations (in Wales only)

Lydia Lassila wins Women's aerials event at Vancouver 2010

Events like the Winter Olympics could be lost from terrestrial television. Photo: Kyler Storm

This would have been the sole list, no Group B for highlights, just the events listed above. Notable objections were raised about the emission of the Winter Olympic Games, and the inclusion of home Ashes Test matches. The head of the ECB complained, citing the money they would lose from their current Sky deal, and the BOA were understandably unhappy at the world’s largest winter sporting event potentially being relegated to subscription based TV.

The decision on the proposed list was supposed to have been made in 2010, the general election ended up delaying that and it has now been further pushed back into 2013. The reason given for the second delay is the digital switchover. The theory is that with digital television, there should be more space to broadcast, and therefore more free-to-air channels available to schedule sport on. However, buying the license to broadcast on a particular channel, buying the rights to a sport and then producing a programme all cost money. So with terrestrial broadcasters limited in funds, the problem of being outbid for television rights will still exist.

Decisions will have to be made whether governing bodies go for the money or the media exposure, broadcasters will have to decide which sports offer the best value for money, and minority sports will have to realise that exposure follows success, not the other way round. The decisions taken will never see everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, so we should be thankful then when a sporting occasion is kept on terrestrial television for the nation’s pleasure.

The challenge now is to tackle the TV companies who think that because they’ve paid so much money to broadcast a sport, that they now own all the history and tradition that goes with it. Tradition in sport is dying out and TV broadcasters that pay the money, and therefore hold the power, can largely be blamed for it. Take Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final as an example: played at Wembley, broadcast on ESPN, with a 12:30 kick-off. That is a whole other debate for another time though.

Featured image: Silver Birch wins 2007 Grand National – CharlesFred

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