A time to make you appreciate televised sport, with or without the BBC

By Sam Packer, media campaign manager

The coronavirus outbreak has had a truly extraordinary impact on life across the western world. Whilst obviously secondary to health concerns, for me and millions like me the resulting freeze on all forms of sport has been one of the most frustrating aspects of the pandemic. Marble racing and e-sports are about all that are left to fill the sporting void. 

People are coping in different ways. The French striker Antoine Griezman has put in an early claim to a future coaching career, joining a local league on management-simulator football manager.

This barren period should make us appreciate the abundance of sport that we normally have. Moreover, it raises an important question: how is it that so much sport is available to watch the world over? How was I able, when stuck indoors all day in France in January, to flick between India-Australia and Melbourne-Brisbane cricket matches in the morning, keep an eye on a darts tournament and premiership football action, before filling the afternoon with non-stop matches from the rugby champions cup? Then top it off the following evening with Liverpool versus Manchester United? 

The answer, as in so many things, is the power of the free market. Those of us who adore sport should be hugely grateful to competitive television, which has allowed for the proliferation of viewership for nearly every sport on the planet. 

It was not always so. Until Sky’s coverage of England’s 1990 tour of the West Indies, none of England’s century-long history of overseas cricket series had ever been televised live in the UK. BT sport televises more than 3 times the number of premiership rugby matches as was the case when the league was first aired by Sky in the 1990s. Darts was in danger of losing television coverage of its then only major tournament in the early 90s. The Professional Darts Corporation now rakes in millions of viewers every week. Extraordinary as it may seem, there was no regular live televised coverage of English football until 1983! 30 years ago, outside of major  sporting events, fans might get the occasional live contest if they were lucky. A few hours of highlights and the odd clip on Grandstand was as good as it got. Back then, Britain had yet to unleash mass consumer power on the televised sport market. 

It is easy to be nostalgic for the days when test cricket was on the BBC in the summer and the Champions League on ITV. But not only were half of those tests unavailable to watch anywhere, but the ones that were would repeatedly break for other coverage. ITV showed a tiny fraction of Champions League games. This is all understandable - historically, in Britain, the few television channels were catering for the entire, varied population. But those of us who are avid fans should be forever grateful that we live in an era where if we choose to pay, there is a competitive market featuring literally dozens of television stations to beam sport from all over the globe to us nearly non-stop.

The growth of the television marketplace does not mean there are not opportunities for more casual followers to watch sport. The entirety of the football and rugby world cups have always been on terrestrial television. As is the six nations, the grand national and a significant list of major events. Indeed, such has been the influence of satellite sport that terrestrial channels have started airing sport that they never did historically.  For example, those without a Sky or BT subscription can now watch both premiership and european cup rugby on channels 4 and 5 for the first time.

In the past few months, there has been some debate around whether the six nations, currently shown jointly by the BBC and ITV, should be able to move to a pay-tv provider. But, as the tournament organisers argue, making it compulsory that the tournament airs on terrestrial television would totally undermine the sport’s financial position, as terrestrial providers could offer far less knowing they didn’t have to compete with the likes of Sky and BT. Locking the six nations to the current providers would undermine exactly the kind of free market power which has done so much for sport. 

Of course this isn’t any ordinary marketplace, because one of the big players in it is taxpayer-funded: the BBC. The fact that the BBC are competing with private providers for the rights for (what  even a mad sports fan like me would accept is) entertainment, helps to show just how far the BBC has moved from being a straight public service broadcaster.

Limiting sport to the BBC not only undermines the sport’s financial position, but it’s bad for taxpayers too. Because of the licence fee, there is no such thing as “free-to-air” tv. In order to watch sport or anything else, you have to pay the licence fee. Even if you don’t give a hoot about the six nations, you still pay the licence fee so others can enjoy it.  

In the USA, where there is no television tax, a far higher proportion of top-quality sport is on terrestrial television that is the case in the UK. This is partially because they have had genuine competition in television for far longer than we have had in the UK, meaning that mainstream channels appreciate the enormous potential value of sport. If we want sport to be seen by as many eyeballs as possible, and accessible without a fee, there is precious little evidence that the solution is a state broadcaster. If sports want to maximise eyeballs, there are plenty of other universal options. The likes of the amazing cricket world cup final and the rugby world cup didn’t suffer from being on Channel 4 and ITV respectively. 

The sporting freeze definitely makes us obsessives appreciative of how much sport we can watch these days. But we should not forget that it is the relatively recent rise of competitive consumer power which has opened it up. The BBC, paid for by sporting fans and phobes alike, does not need to be involved. There are plenty of options besides the BBC to make major sporting events available to as many people as possible, and they won’t charge a TV tax for the privilege. 

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