Eighty years ago, live sport made its introduction to UK TV with the screening of Bunny Austin’s tennis match against George Rogers at Wimbledon on the BBC. It was the start of a long love affair between sport and TV, which has continued to blossom ever since. But that’s not to say that there haven’t been a few hiccups along the way. Today, sport’s place on our screens is worlds apart from that in 1937.
With a market divided by free-to-air and pay-tv services, numerous major broadcasting powers such as Sky Sports, BT Sport, and the BBC battle it out to win the coveted prize of live broadcasting our greatest sporting events. And more often than not, money talks.
Is this a problem? In the last twenty years, the rapid growth of pay-tv in the UK has had a momentous effect on sport. Taking professional football as an example, pay-tv has been closely linked with the development of the Premier League, England’s top-flight division, since its establishment in 1992.
“The cost of the TV rights has exploded”
As every season has progressed, the cost of the TV rights has exploded. For 2016 – 2019, the league again reached new financial heights with a TV deal standing at a value of £5.136 billion – quite a long way from the first deal at £191 million twenty-five years ago. Well, an increase of over 2589% to be exact.
Now whilst it would be very difficult to disagree with those who point out that such figures only symbolise the demise of a beautiful game now overwhelmed and intoxicated with avarice, it is undeniable that this money has been greatly beneficial to the development of the game.
Today, the PL is not only just the richest league in the world, generating €2bn more than any other in Europe, but it is the most equitable too. Unlike its competitors, the PL was the first to distribute international TV revenues equally amongst all clubs. Alongside this, domestic TV payments only take into account the current season, meaning that no club is penalised for their performance in previous years.
It is a system that gives some of the smaller clubs a much-needed financial boost, allowing them to make stadium and training ground improvements, and strengthen their squads with new signings. This increased competition is only positive for the league.
“The fact that free-to-air is not driven solely by any commercial goals is another huge bonus.“
Broadcasting revenues from the PL have also been beneficial in other areas of the game. Approximately £100m has been donated to the 72 clubs in the English Football League (EFL) and an additional £100m has been spent on grass roots football projects. Of course, more can always be done, but credit should be given where it is due.
From another perspective, the rise of pay-tv has similarly improved the standard of sports broadcasting for the viewer on the sofa. A clear example of this is cricket. Making its last bow on Channel 4 with that famous Ashes series in 2005, the sport then moved entirely to pay-tv service, Sky Sports, and has settled at home there for the last twelve years.
At the time, it was deeply upsetting for cricket’s purists who strongly believed that cricket was an integral part of free-to-air sport in the UK. But putting all emotions aside, the sport’s TV relocation was one that effectively kick-started a whole new era in broadcasting.
“Sky Sports significantly upgraded the coverage of cricket”
With the help of considerable financial backing, Sky Sports significantly upgraded the coverage of cricket. It combined several innovations such as the Sky Cart (a transportable touchscreen used for analysis and insight on the field) and Hot Spot (an infra-red camera used to see if a ball has touched the bat, pad or batsman) with a much higher calibre of presenters and commentators.
Names such as Nasser Hussain, David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd and Mike Atherton have become synonymous with cricket broadcasting. It’s very hard to argue that such enhancements for the sport would have happened if it had stayed on free-to-air stations, due to the obvious funding constraints.
However, free-to-air is still more than capable of putting up a fight against pay-tv, despite its major deficiency in finance. Most prominently, it makes high-quality sport accessible to everyone, no matter how wealthy they are. It gives financially disadvantaged people the chance to get inspired in a sport that they might not have been able to see on TV before. This can in turn mean more participation in sport and another step towards a healthier, happier society.
The fact that free-to-air is not driven solely by any commercial goals is another huge bonus. It means that for viewers there is a greater diversity of sports shown on TV. For instance, the BBC has the flexibility to broadcast events such as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Athletics Championships and the Women’s Football World Cup.
“Free-to-air gives a much wider picture”
This is different from pay-tv’s offerings, which only come from a select group of sports that they deem financially viable to show. Ultimately, free-to-air gives a much wider picture of the sport scene in the UK. It helps to get more people involved with some of the smaller sports by giving them more exposure on the main channels. Irrespective of broadcaster or service, sport on TV is always a good thing. With the prevalence of physical and mental health problems in the population today, it is imperative that fitness and exercise is encouraged and promoted on our screens.
Looking ahead though, the situation between pay-tv and free-to-air is in desperate need of being addressed. The BBC’s recent commitment to an extra 1000 hours of live sport each year is promising. But still more must be done to balance out the amount of coverage that each service offers. The richest broadcasters must never be allowed to have a monopoly on sport.