Well the England cricket rights are up for grabs at the moment (free reg reqd). Over the last three years, Channel 4 have had all the home Tests, save one, and Sky have had the one dayers as well as a single Test.
Ofcom have recently put out a draft of the latest Listed Events (PDF), and it’s worth noting that the England Test Matches fall into Group B, which means that if, say Sky, get the live rights exclusively, another broadcaster should be able to offer highlights and live radio rights have been acquired by a national broadcaster. The wording is confusing, and I’m not sure whether that means that if, say, Sky get the TV rights, but neither the BBC nor Talksport take the radio rights, that then Sky wouldn’t be allowed to continue. A moot point that’s unlikely to occur.
But returning to the case in point, I’m not sure how keen C4 really are to continue with their cricket coverage. You sometimes get the feeling that it invades their Hollyoaks/T4 hour (repeats of Friends have to continue at all costs, and they’ve just paid a fortune for The Simpsons). Then there’s the issue of highlights (remembering that most people are working for most of the time the Test matches are on) – sometime around midnight seems to be the norm. And on Saturday, at the time when most people are able to watch, they interrupt it with racing (albeit, you can watch full, unencrypted coverage of FilmFour if you have digital satellite or cable).
Sky, I’ve no doubt would love it, but it surely has to be the BBC that gets the cricket back. Wimbledon aside, most of the summer they can fit it in, uninterrupted, and when play goes beyond 6pm, it’s less of an issue.
But the fact remains, that should the ECB want, they could just go for satellite, with some kind of highlights programme relegated to late night on a terrestrial channel. It would be late night coverage, because neither the Beeb nor C4 would especially want to give much primetime to a sport that they can’t cover properly – that’s why there was so little coverage of the last Cricket World Cup terrestrially. The rights were available, but no-one wanted them.
Sports administrators can be very stupid about these things, just looking for the quick buck. But if I was a sports sponsor, I’d be looking for reduced costs if the ECB go the Sky route. Less exposure equals less cash.
My dad was moaning to me only yesterday about how terrible it was that the Ryder Cup was not shown live on free-to-air television. You had to stay up late for the highlights – which were certainly comprehensive. But the event didn’t finish until around 10.00pm our time, so it was much later than that, that terrestrial viewers got to see the European team celebrations. The Ryder Cup is also a category B event, and that’s why, I think, that the competition has never really achieved mass appeal. It’s a big event, but one that can’t be shared properly by the populace.
Incidentally, other Group B events include non-finals play at Wimbledon (the BBC have this, but they could in theory be limited to the finals alone), all the games aside from the final in the Rugby World Cup (ITV currently show all the games), Six Nations matches involving home nations (the BBC have all the Six Nations), The Commonwealth Games (BBC – doubt anyone else would bother), The World Athletics Championships (BBC), the Cricket World Cup final, semis and matches involving England (Sky has this tournament, and terrestrial viewers are left with highlights of the above – if at all), the Open Golf Championship (BBC).
I reckon if the Open Golf Championship left the BBC, that might just about kill Golf as a mass viewership sport in this country. There are a handful of other tournaments on TV in the UK – including the Volvo PGA, the Scottish Open, the World Matchplay, and the Masters. But would the BBC give loads of airtime to a sport that they couldn’t really do justice to? I doubt it. As it happens, I think that the deal the BBC have stretches a few years forward – the European Tour deal certainly runs to 2008.
In some respects, keeping an element of these sports on terrestrial TV must also help the likes of Sky Sports. If you don’t build a following free-to-air, you reducing the number of people who’re likely to want to subscribe for additional coverage. Look at boxing as a case in point. Amir Khan aside, the general populace has lost interest in this sport.