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In search of sport broadcasting's sweet spot

17 Jul 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
In search of sport broadcasting's sweet spot

Too many purchasers of exclusive sports rights don't understand their long-term interests lie in a mixed economy of subscription and free-to-air TV, writes Ray Snoddy

The advertisements in the sports pages of the newspapers signify a return to normal as a top sporting event lurks once again behind the paywall.

“The Only Place To Watch The Open Live” is on Sky Sports Golf HD and costs £18 extra a month.

If you are only a bit interested in golf and the 148th Open at Royal Portrush this week, then you are really not going to pay £18 a month even if you can “cancel anytime.”

For golf, which is not having the easiest of times attracting participants, it’s perhaps a lost opportunity to showcase the sport in a way demonstrated spectacularly by the World Cup cricket at the weekend.

You can’t orchestrate a double tie, unprecedented excitement, an England win and indeed pandemonium in this household with the four grandsons whooping with joy whether they understood the rules or even what was going on.

They even said they want to play cricket.

Whether the umpire made a mistake or not it was a high point for sport on terrestrial television with the cricket attracting 8.5 million viewers – 4.5 million of them on Channel 4.

The equally fantastic four hour 57 minute men’s Federer-Djokovic Wimbledon final on at largely the same time pulled in 9.6 million.

It was almost an embarrassment of riches with Channel 4 having to move the cricket to More4 to accommodate Lewis Hamilton winning the British Grand Prix.

It was clearly a clever tactical move by Sky to voluntarily share the Cricket World Cup final with a terrestrial broadcaster – or was it?

It was good for cricket, which has been in overall decline as a public phenomenon since the Ashes moved to subscription television in 2005.

You can argue that it was also good strategy for Sky – using a showcase to encourage the creation of a new generation of cricket fans who could become subscribers to Sky Sports channels in the future.

It’s far from clear however whether Rupert Murdoch would have allowed such a thing.

Sure it’s a crowd-pleaser in the short term but it may also open a very inconvenient box for Sky – creating the desire for more free-to-air coverage of major sporting events.

This could feed into the political domain when politics return to what passes for normal – if such a thing ever happens again.

So where are we now after the heightened adrenaline levels of a extraordinary weekend?

Football has a momentum of its own through the pulling power of the Premier League although the breakthrough in the impact of women’s football only happened because the World Cup was on mainstream terrestrial channels.

Those who run “minority” sports may have to think again about the wisdom of simply taking the money and disappearing behind the paywall.

Over time the only way is down and in a competitive world for the use of people’s time, perhaps even in the direction of oblivion.

Many might be calibrating where, to reach for a tennis metaphor, the “sweet spot” on the racket where the ball is best hit, is to be found.

The sweet spot must surely lie between finding a balance between the revenues of subscription and free-to-air attention even if that means deciding against going for the largest possible pot of gold.

In a way cricket is showing the way – because they know they have to.

Two Twenty20 cricket matches will be shown on free-to-air television next season.

The BBC’s new five year-deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board will mean more than 100 hours of cricket will be broadcast each summer, the first live cricket on the BBC since 1999.

The new T20 format may be controversial but its best chance of success surely flows from the live coverage planned for the BBC.

The deal also covers TV highlights of England’s men’s home Test matches.

It adds up to a big reversal of recent history.

Highlights are very important as Match of the Day demonstrates week in week out during the football season.

BT paid a huge amount of money for exclusive coverage of the Champions League but the broadcaster is taking a short-term view in not making highlights of the Champions League available to terrestrial television.

Over time it will undermine the public perception and public interest in the competition. For those who are not fanatical supporters of the clubs involved – out of sight is out of mind.

Purchasers of exclusive sports rights do not always understand where their best long-term interest lie, and that is in a mixed economy of subscription and free-to-air television.

And that is where politicians come in.

We have an excellent system of protecting “the crown jewels” - the events that are judged to transcend sports fans and become part of a more general sharing that binds society together.

Whether cricket’s World’s Cup, or at least the final, should be added to the list will be reviewed this autumn by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee in the autumn.

Damian Collins, who chairs the committee, says it will explore the importance of free-to-air television to the development of cricket and the issue of listing.

“The audience was very good for the final but quite small before that. The World Cup is an opportunity to inspire the next generation and we will be looking at the legacy plans,” Collins says.

Sky gaveth freely on Sunday but could just as easily take it away next time – unless something is done.

Collins' Committee could also use the occasion to see whether there are other events that could and should be part of the national conversation – such as the Ashes when played in England.

In a fractiously divided society sport on television could help to heal rifts – at least until the final whistle.

The latest research shows that even chimpanzees like sharing videos.

The Collins Committee could also look at the importance of highlights and make sure that terrestrial broadcasters should have the option of purchase where appropriate.

It is a small gesture in the direction of social equality and inclusiveness for those you cannot afford monthly subscriptions – or do not want to pay for live sport.

Now it’s time to see how Rory McIlroy is getting on at Royal Portrush – but alas only through the news bulletins not at £18 a month on Sky.

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