Owen Gibson analyses the recent sports rights deals that have seen the BBC battling against the tide
Barbara Slater, the Director of BBC Sport, likes to bang the drum for digital. Even so, last year she found the time to blog on the corporation’s website just six times.
Four of those six posts apologetically explained why the BBC had been forced to cede flagship rights and was likely to make further cuts in the future.
The posts unpicked why the BBC, after six decades, had to surrender Open golf and also give up on a, perhaps vainglorious, bid to roll back the years by making the Beeb the exclusive home of Formula 1.
The gloom deepened in November, when Director-General Tony Hall said that sport would have to take its share of pain amid planned cuts of £150m.
That BBC Sport had been earmarked for a further £35m in savings led some onlookers, including this one, to wonder whether sport was perpetually doomed to be undervalued by the BBC’s top table.
There has been better news recently. The BBC found a way to hold on to the free-to-air rights to the summer and winter Olympics until 2024, following a £110m-plus deal with Discovery.
Yet even this was underscored with a sense that it was battling to hold back the tide. The corporation has given up exclusive rights to the 2018 and 2020 Olympics, effectively agreeing to become a junior partner.
The BBC, which fought off competition from free-to-air rivals, including ITV, will still be home to all the biggest live moments. Discovery’s Eurosport, however, will be able to claim that it is the only place to follow all the action.
Recently, there has been a merry-go-round of other rights shifts among commercial free-to-air broadcasters, who are keenly aware of sport’s value as an appointment to view in a digital, time-shifted age.
The BBC’s share of Formula 1 coverage has moved to Channel 4 from 2016 and, in turn, ITV has, from next year, exclusively snapped up the biggest dates in the horse-racing calendar (which moved in 2012 to Channel 4 from the BBC amid much hoopla).
Meanwhile, the return of the FA Cup to the BBC (in conjunction with BT Sport) has been judged a success. It reflects a growing trend towards uneasy co-operation and sharing.
For around a decade, it seemed that the relationship between the pay-TV broadcasters and their free-to-air brethren had settled into something of a cosy equilibrium.
Sky, having seen off competitors from OnDigital to Setanta, had helped itself to all the live rights that it required to keep its numbers trending upwards.
From Premier League football to exclusive international cricket, it bagged all those rights that would drive its business. In the process, it pioneered numerous innovations. Meanwhile, the BBC cemented its hold on the sort of major events that confirmed it as the place where the nation comes together.
The corporation continued its investment in Olympics, World Cups, the annual Middle England love-in at Wimbledon and the Six Nations. At the same time, ITV concentrated on live Champions League and international football, plus the Rugby World Cup.
But that was BBTS – Before BT Sport. The new arrival went head-to-head with Sky for sports rights in a battle that went beyond attracting viewers. Fundamentally, it was a means of battling over lucrative triple-play customers. As a result, the cost of live Premier League rights soared to a staggering £5.1bn over three years.
"Recently, there has been a merry-go-round of other rights shifts among commercial free-to-air broadcasters, who are keenly aware of sport’s value as an appointment to view in a digital, time-shifted age."
The tremors reached way beyond the pay-TV battleground. With the BBC also engaged in a bitter battle over the terms of its Charter renewal against a hostile Government and press, the tectonic plates have shifted noticeably.
This, in turn, has presented both challenges and opportunities. ITV, having lost live Champions League football to BT Sport, flirted strongly with challenging the BBC for the rights to Premier League highlights, but decided not to bid.
Instead, it has cannily collaborated with the BBC to share Six Nations rights, securing the rights to the majority of the more commercially lucrative England games, and taken the previously mentioned brave bet on horse racing.
This, then, is the shape of televised sport in 2016. In a world of fluid viewing across a range of devices, sport retains the power to gather a crowd in front of a big screen at an appointed time.
Even a highlights show such as Match of the Day, reborn in its 50th year, has become a kind of event programme, bigger than the sum of its parts.
Not every gamble works. Channel 5’s bold move to capture highlights to Football League matches and shift the show to Saturday night primetime has struggled for viewers.
Yet sport remains the lingua franca of the modern age, the prism through which social life is mediated and discussed. And it retains a huge pull on advertisers, one reason why ITV has gravitated towards racing and rugby.
The free-to-air terrestrial broadcasters have been aided by the Government, in one respect. In December, an almost-overlooked aspect of sports minister Tracey Crouch’s review was to preserve the protected list of “crown jewels” events reserved for free-to-air TV.
London 2012 was the much-cited highpoint of the BBC’s commitment to all-singing, all-dancing coverage of the major events that bring the nation together across the full range of its platforms and services: from 26 interactive channels covering every sport to associated spin-off programming. The diminished deal with Discovery seems to reflect its new place in the world.
Discovery, which has signed triple-jump world record holder Jonathan Edwards from the BBC to front its coverage, will be able to market itself as the only place to see every last hop and skip.
For ITV and Channel 4 – which made such a ratings and reputational success of its Paralympic coverage in 2012 – it is a case of back to the future.
Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage of half the races over the course of the season, under the same terms as the BBC’s existing deal, is a bold move.
Again, advertisers will pay to reach a guaranteed audience of petrolheads. But, as with the BBC, the challenge will be to take the sport beyond its heartland of hardcore fans.
Meanwhile, technology is opening up new avenues, not only for the pay-TV giants but for the terrestrial broadcasters, too. A recent deal between the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the BBC for online clips and highlights to complement televised coverage might point one way to the future.
And sports governing bodies are being more sophisticated in weighing up the huge income boost that pay-TV provides with the profile they crave.
There is a continuing debate over whether cricket has been helped or harmed by the England and Wales Cricket Board’s decision, following the epic 2005 Ashes series, to move coverage of England’s matches exclusively to pay-TV. Sky has won awards galore for its innovative programming. Cricket fans can gorge on wall-to-wall coverage that is more insightful and more stirring than ever before. But there are still many who that feel something has been lost along the way and that the game may rue its decision in the long term.
Such are the calculations that governing bodies and broadcasters must make amid the shifting sands of a sports rights market that can be as competitive and unpredictable as anything on the field of play.