DEBATE – Should major sporting events be available on terrestrial TV?

Isabelle Boulert : Yes, free-to-air sports allows for much needed exposure of underfunded sports

In a world where the market is revered and state intervention is seen as a throwback it seems there is little space left for free-to-air sports in Britain today. As a result, the number of so called ‘crown jewel’ sporting occasions deemed by the government and underpinned by EU legislation to be events ‘with special national resonance’ have dwindled.

Many take the demise of free-to-air sports as inevitable. Subscription TV has shown itself to be impervious to recession. Despite increasing prices, demand has persisted. In arguing that the free market is the best way to regulate how broadcasting contracts are allocated, the free-to-air mindset is dismissed as antiquated.

In doing so, supporters of pay-to-view sports risk spreading the havoc that a hegemonic pay-to-view sports market have inevitably brought to some sports.

The vast cash injection the Premier League has experienced as a result of selling Sky television rights has caused catastrophic disparities, both in terms of talent and wealth, seen in the leagues between the Premier League and League’s One and Two.

Such an enormous injection of money has added to the problem of a hugely inflated transfer market, resulting in the sum of players wages continually outstripping the benefit gained from television rights. The shortfall is blamed by some as a reason for spiralling ticket prices and the increasingly risky financial decision making.

Pay-to-view sports have the power to detrimentally impact the future of homegrown talent in. In the case of football, the sport arguably affected most, the effects of pay-to-view sport have increasingly drawn talent from abroad as Premier League purchasing power outstrips foreign clubs. A tiny proportion of money from TV rights filters down into grassroots schemes or  lower leagues in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, home-grown players are sidelined and increasingly seeing their talents go unappreciated. Perhaps this acts as an explanation as to why the English national side under performs so regularly.

Free-to-air sports give enormous opportunities for exposure to sports that would otherwise remain on the fringes of commercial interest. In Australia, a country deeply passionate about sport and perhaps the last true bastion of free-to-air viewing, games like netball and basketball benefit from significantly more funding than in the UK. It is no coincidence these are also the games commonly played in most Australian schools.

In economic terms, sport is an under consumed product. People, on average, never play as much sport as they should to gain the wider social advantages it brings. Without government intervention to ensure the positive externalities are garnered, this will remain the case.

By making sport available for all to watch we bring it to new audiences and inspire newcomers to take up the game. Ultimately, the legacy of free-to-air sport is the future of sporting excellence.

Perhaps the least tangible and most overlooked reason free-to-air sport must be protected is cultural inheritance. Britain has an illustrious history of free sports broadcasting. This represents a commitment to protecting sport from the ravages of class distinctions.

Will the decision to sell coverage of the Open to Sky result in golf returning to its previously held position of only provoking the interest of the wealthy (or at least those wealthy enough for subscription TV)? Sport is for all; whether we are watching or playing, one should never be barred by economics.

Free-to-air sport may seem outdated to many but its future and the future of British sport are symbiotic.

Despite a turning tide against the free-to-air model, a voice in support of terrestrial TV must be heard amongst the hordes of satellite junkies. If it is ignored, sport is in danger of growing so commercialised a product that it becomes a shadow of what it could be.

Rex Hugill: No, Sky’s TV revolution is improving sport rather than damaging it 

News that The Open Championship will be taken off terrestrial television and shown by Sky Sports from 2017 was met with howls of consternation, cries that this is a further knife into an already elitist sport that is dying a slow death. “How will we inspire the next generation if it’s hidden behind pay subscriptions?” many have asked.

Well this question, in this case and for televised sport in general, is myopic, limited and largely misses the point. The idea of inspiration is one that comes in many forms. Yes television is one of them, but so too is attending the event, arguably more so. So too is national success in the sport, arguably more so. So too is the idea that the sport is exciting, modern and fun, certainly more so. That is what Sky’s purchase of The Open will bring. Sky covers sport better than the BBC, this is irrefutable and essential to this debate. They push the boundaries of technological coverage, employ much more measured, informed pundits, who spend their entire year commentating on the sport and can divert much more air time to each event. The Ryder Cup coverage on Sky has been game-changing, unparalleled and inspiring.

The sport that perhaps splits this debate most pertinently is cricket, with many recalling fondly the halcyon days of the 2005 Ashes series on Channel Four, where the greatest series ever played was available for everyone to watch. Since 2006, all England test matches have been shown exclusively behind the Sky pay-wall and participation figures are slowly dropping. Many of the game’s greatest writers have found some correlation between these two facts.

But Sky has improved the game immeasurably. It pumps money into grassroots cricket, county cricket, women’s cricket and disability cricket, four areas that desperately need money and four that would have degenerated greatly without the money from subscriptions.

Since 2006, both the men and the women have been ranked number one in the world, England have won a global ICC competition and £150 million has been invested into all areas of the game. What people are quick to forget about Channel Four’s coverage too, was that its technology was rudimentary, its footage was of low quality, and every afternoon it stopped so they could show the news and, more bafflingly, the racing. Sky outstrips it in every department.

No greater evidence is needed than the extraordinary expansion of top division football. Sky, in 1992, was the lead and only broadcaster for the new Premier League and in the twenty-three years since, it has become the greatest sporting product in the world.

The price of bidding for the 2016-19 rights is predicted to exceed £6bn for 168 live games. Has Sky’s influence lowered participation in football? Have crowds dwindled and the product deteriorated?

Clearly not, in fact it is the opposite. English football is in as strong a position as it has ever been, envied the world over, despite what the Lad Bible will have you believe about ‘amazing German crowds.’ The bottom line is that in a perfect free market, Sky is forced to improve and modernise to stay ahead of other sports networks.

It has the money to support a huge number of sports, in fact not just support but revolutionise. Football has had it, cricket has had it, darts has had it to an incredible extent and now, finally, golf is catching up. Last year, only one million people tuned into BBC’s Open coverage. Given that it is beamed into every home, that is pathetic. Golf needs better packaging, better delivery and a better product, and Sky will deliver that.

It has proved that it can do that before and once it does, people will tune in. They will watch a better spectacle, with better commentary and better technology. And they will be inspired.

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