The weekend just gone was a big one in UK sport.
Picking up a broadsheet newspaper on Saturday morning left you in no doubt of that. And the first key event was the deciding Lions test in Sydney. Page after page was dedicated to Warren Gatland’s decisions over who to include and who to leave out. This was massive.
The game kicked off at 11am UK time – not perfect, but not a bad way to start. The Lions won. And the next morning there was acres of coverage again in the press. Even an impending Andy Murray Wimbledon final couldn’t stop it altogether. My Sunday paper of choice, The Observer, has dedicated page after page to this tour.
But that afternoon – a gloriously hot and sunny afternoon across most of the country – Andy Murray was in another Wimbledon Men’s final. And despite the calling of gardens, parks and beaches across the country, a peak 17.3m people saw him win.
Compare this to a reported peak of 1.5m seeing the Lions win the previous day.
This is the power of free to air television. Neither rugby union nor tennis would naturally be the most popular sports in the country, but television coverage dictates their respective popularities. We don’t see a great deal of live tennis on free to air television in the UK. Aside from Wimbledon and a couple of weeks preceding it with warm up tournaments, there’s not much else. ITV has picked up the baton and gives decent coverage of the French Open on ITV4 while the BBC shares rights for the ATP’s season ending tournament in the O2. There may or may not be the odd Davies Cup fixture. But that’s your lot.
But the BBC essentially decamps to SW19 for the two weeks of Wimbledon and it becomes an event. I know that the good burghers of Wimbledon would quite it not to be case that their tournament is “listed”. But as with many other European countries, that remains the case with the event.
Compare and contrast with the Lions, whose tour didn’t even get any free to air highlights pacakges. Not even S4C in Wales showed it. I assume a lot of pubs were packed on Saturday mornings instead.
A decision was taken to sell the rights to Sky exclusively, and the tour becomes very profitable. Never mind the vast sums made from merchandise. Rugby union is considered an upmarket sport, so sponsors and advertisers around the event mean that there’s lots of money to be made. It’s not for nothing that ITV, Premiership highlights notwithstanding, suddenly becomes properly interested in the game once every four years when the World Cup comes around.
Anyway, which sporting event made the most impact on the nation over the weekend? The Lions winning brilliantly? Or Andy Murray? It’s no contest.
(Sandwiched in between both these events was the Tour de France – with a pair of outstanding Pyrannean stages over the weekend. Even with Chris Froome storming to the mailloit jaune, and free to air coverage on ITV4, it couldn’t make a dent in the other sporting beasts of the weekend).
Which brings us to today, and the first Ashes test. Again the papers are full of pages of coverage.
But the vast majority of the population are at best either going to have to listen to BBC Radio’s sterling coverage, or catch Channel 5’s highlights. Maybe there’ll be a couple of wickets in news bulletins.
In the paper today, David Collier, the chief executive of the ECB is quoted as saying that sold out grounds throughout the series show that leaving free to air television hasn’t damaged the sport. Well I’d hope that you can sell tickets for England v Australia. It’s probably the biggest cricket series in the world (although the IPL might be said to give it a run for its money, were it not a little tainted). But can he really say that the sport is in a healthy place?
Are all those Twenty20 fixtures all sold out? What about the various one day competitions? And is anybody at all going to county championship games? The sport is really financially healthy is it? Or is it in fact more and more dependent on Sky’s largess, meaning that should the pay TV company ever lose interest in the game – for example, a new generation of people not really being interested in something that gets minimal exposure – they’ll be way up the river with no hope of finding a paddle.
If England win the series – as they’re expected to – will there be a tickertape parade through London? Or will the nation shrug their shoulders a little and say, “So England won did they?”
And let’s not even get into the fiasco of them doing it all over again this winter! At least others realise that less is more.
This is a sport that has sold itself so completely to pay television that not a single ball of UK fixtures will be live on free to air television. You can watch the slugfest of the IPL though. That’s probably not going to do it.
Now I wouldn’t want you to think that I don’t believe that Sky doesn’t do an amazing job. They do. This is all about sports’ administrators thinking about a little further ahead than next year’s balance sheet, and realising the value of sport on television beyond the massive cheques they might be writing you.
(Yes, I’ve said a lot of this before. But it stands to be repeated.)