A winning formula of reach and impact for free-to-air sport
Media leadersAs rugby's Super League moves from Sky to Channel 4, Raymond Snoddy looks at those sporting occasions protected for free-to-air television by legislation that hasn't changed in almost 24 years.
In the general mayhem of the news last week it would have been easy to miss a small but significant news story in the sports pages of The Sun.
Live television coverage of the Rugby League Super League is on the move from Sky to Channel 4, the first time the competition has been on free-to-air TV and the first time the domestic league competition has been on free-to-air in more than 25 years. The Rugby League Challenge Cup has, of course, always been on the BBC.
Channel 4 will broadcast 10 Super League games. The Super League’s main motivation is to ensure that more games are freely available to the sport’s largely working class followers.
In the minds of sports organisers, the dilemma over what to do about exclusive sports rights is almost always a trade-off between reach and revenue.
With the Channel 4 decision, Super League has decided to go for reach and impact in the hope of bringing new audiences to the sport.
At the moment, the main danger lies in the opposite direction – that more sports will go behind paywalls as tech giants such as Amazon Prime increasingly use sports as a battering ram to drive subscriptions.
By happy coincidence, the Rugby League news came at the same time as the autumn conference of Voice of the Viewer and Listener devoted a session to an apparently obscure – but actually vital- area of television, Listed Events.
Listed Events ensure that the great sporting events that unite the nation, (usually involving those who are not normally obsessed by sport), such as the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup Finals and the FA Cup Final are shown on free-to-air television.
There is also a Group B list, ensuring that highlights or delayed transmission such as the Commonwealth Games and the Open Golf Championship are available.
The VLV session asked whether the Listed Events regime was fit for purpose any more and highlighted an extraordinary fact.
With the exception of adding The Paralympics to the A list, the Listing regime is virtually unchanged since 1998 - almost pre-history in terms of television and communications technology's evolutionary march.
Then, the broadcasting headlines of the year included the former Culture Secretary Chris Smith setting up a working party under Lord Jimmy Gordon, the late broadcasting executive, to look at Listed Events. As a result, not only the World Cup finals were protected but also the qualifying matches of the Home Nations.
In 1998 Sky Television was nine years old and beginning to change the broadcasting landscape but digital and on-demand television, and streaming were still disrupters in the making.
As Barbara Slater, who has remarkably been the BBC’s director of Sport since 2009, told the Zoom conference “listed events legislation was created in a linear age. We are no longer in a linear age.”
Increasingly young viewers are accessing their content digitally and in catch-up with, for example, more than 100 million requests for videos of the Olympics. With modernising of the Listed Events regime there is a danger of creating a digital divide – those who have access to on-demand digital and those who have not.
Another obvious problem is that the current listed events regime applies only to TV channels which reach 95% of the population. This in effect meant the public service broadcasting channels free-to-air channels.
What happens if on-demand platforms reach such thresholds - something that hardly looks impossible?
Slater believes that the Listed Events regime should apply to broadcasters with a proven reach and a proven track record of delivering the largest possible audiences – rather than those offering the theoretical, technological possibility of such a reach.
The other big issue is whether the list of protected events should be extended and modernised.
There is a strong case for more cricket to be included and how about a major sports final where one of the finalists is British?
Amazon Prime owned the rights to the US Open Finals won by Emma Raducanu and wisely reached a deal with Channel 4 to show the final live on free-to-air.
It didn’t have to and without the voluntary agreement, millions would have been unable to see – from a British perspective - one of the greatest women’s tennis matches of all time.
The biggest current hole in the list is the total absence of any reference to women’s sport.
The Women’s World Cup semi-final in 2019, which England’s women lost narrowly to the USA, had a reach of 28 million, the second most viewed programme in any genre.
As the top women’s sports events start to attract previously unheard of audiences, it is not impossible that they will also attract the attentions of pay TV operators.
The time to protect such events for free-to-air television is now – before the problem arises.
Communications regulator Ofcom is believed to be having a serious look at the complex issues surrounding the Listed Events regime and there is a clear case for legislation in the up-coming Media Bill.
Ensuring that top sporting events, with perhaps extensions to the list, are preserved for free-to-air television would provide an element of “levelling up” that would cost the Government nothing.
It would be a far more sensible and positive agenda to concentrate on than trying to privatise Channel 4, something that few want and nobody needs.
Leaving aside the compulsion of Listed Events, it is possible, that away from the heights of the Premier League, more sports right owners, as the rugby Super League has done, may chose reach and impact on free-to-air over subscription TV revenue.
There are other elements that have to be thrown in the balance by rights owners, not least sponsorship.
As a recent European Broadcasting Union report pointed out, pay-tv places an effective cap on reach because two in three sports fans do not have access to premium sports channels.
Even more important, it has been calculated that a minute of airtime exposure across a free-to-air European TV footprint is worth £186,000 in commercial value for sponsors.
And for those interested, the inaugural Super League – sponsored by Betfred- game on Channel 4 will be Leeds versus Warrington on 12 February.