The hysterical reaction to Sky’s capture of the exclusive live rights to home Test match cricket (which saw some press commentators holding Rupert Murdoch’s organisation responsible for the growing obesity of British youth) has now reached the final stage with the announcement of Ofcom’s intention to approve Channel 5’s award of a highlight package (a necessary condition for a “B” listed event such as home Test cricket now is). Even though Channel 5’s coverage is received by less than 95% of the UK’s population, no other broadcasters such as the BBC bid for the highlights. Ofcom therefore believes that despite the failure to satisfy the statutory criteria it would be in the viewers’ interest that Channel 5 gets the highlights so that at least some of them can see cricket without subscription to Sky and that it therefore has the power to grant permission. Although, a legal challenge is possible, Ofcom is probably right in law.
With the news that ECB is unlikely to lose its sponsors because of the loss of terrestrial exposure (a card that the BBC always plays against pay-TV competitors in negotiations), Ofcom’s announcement is the final instalment of an episode that will do nothing to promote the image of the listings legislation. The extent of the cost that the legislation imposes on sport is clearly illustrated by the cricket tender where the BBC for one offered much less than BSkyB in an open competition where the events had been moved to the “B” list (ie where a satisfactory highlight package is a condition for pay-TV acquiring exclusive live rights). Just how much revenue cricket lost while the live broadcasting of home test matches was effectively confined to terrestrial television by the listing legislation (ie prior to the introduction of the distinction between “A” and “B” events) can only be guessed at but the sum must be very considerable indeed.
If cricket is anything to go by, the monies that go missing as a result of the continued “A” listing of the major football and the major Olympic events must be greater still. This results inevitably in less money being available to remunerate players (or their employers who release them for the football events without charge). The effect on monies available for grass roots must be similarly dramatic and negative.
Viewed from this perspective, the money that governments “invest” in sport (eg through the proceeds of lotteries funded by the taxpayer) may be seen for what it is – namely compensation for loss of earnings arising from the interference in the market. The attachment of conditions to government funding (eg better governance of governing bodies) is, whilst understandable in itself, an abuse of government prerogatives when seen in this light – or simply meddling.
As legal challenges like TV Danmark failed in the House of Lords (see our July 2001 early warning), and human rights challenges are expensive and unpredictable, the way out for governing bodies and clubs who perceive the connection between listing legislation and their own relative impoverishment is to press for the exclusion of their blue ribbon events from the national equivalents of “A” lists in Europe as cricket did so successfully. With the increased take-up of pay-TV – particularly amongst the young – the conventional justification of listings legislation that it is the only guarantee of universal accessibility, gets weaker by the day.