There’s an interesting piece in yesterday’s Guardian hypothesising that by selling itself nearly completely to pay-TV players, rugby union could be very short sighted and diminish the appeal of the sport.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the English Cricket Board has done precisely that, and we’re ending up with a sport of diminishing appeal (in spite of a few big crowds at Twenty20 fixtures). And that’s before their recent ineptness over the whole Kevin Pietersen business including the leak of some kind of internal document that they were compiling.
I’ve always held up rugby to be slightly different to that. But an hour of highlights on ITV4 on a Sunday night isn’t enough for club rugby. The BBC has the Six Nations, and ITV has the World Cup – solidly sold out next year it seems (£70 to sit in the gods at Twickenham to see England? I’ll watch on telly thanks). But most of those could go behind the pay-TV wall if organisers accepted the Sky/BT shilling. Six Nations events need only have highlights broadcast free-to-air, and only the Rugby World Cup Final is guaranteed a live free-to-air showing. The rest of the competition could go to Sky/BT.
The new European Champions’ Cup is shared between BT Sport and Sky Sports, after a protracted wrangle between the big pay-TV operators over the future of what was previously the Heineken Cup. Only the Welsh, it seems, get any kind of free-to-air highlights of the new competition (head to S4C if you have Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat).
My nephew has just started secondary school and is the rugby squad. He’s going to be limited to lots of highlights until early next year – the Aviva Premier League and the Autumn Internationals (England anyway). I wonder if that’s enough to encourage him to want to stay with the sport?
You might argue that the same could be said of football. We’ve never had top division live football free-to-air, with the exception of a brief period when ITV broadcast live fixtures – Liverpool 0 – Arsenal 2 anyone? But football is much bigger.
It would be an interesting experiment if during the next round of Premier League rights somebody came in and say broadcast a few games on a willing free-to-air station – Channel 5 say. They might do a revenue share deal surrounding advertising. We still have to see how BT Sport presents its free-to-air Champions’ League coverage next season. Champions’ League football is not a listed sport. It’s only the needs of the advertisers really, and possibly visibility of the tournament adding to its value to BT, that means we’ll get any free-to-air coverage at all.
I mention this because I can’t help comparing the UK with the US, where it’s free-to-air networks that pay the top money for NFL coverage. Three of the four networks broadcast games weekly. Similarly, packages of MLB and NBA games are sold to basic cable networks. And local stations might also offer coverage free-to-air. Live sport is ratings gold, with unskippable advertising opportunities.