Sunday, 22 November 2009

Sporting ‘Crown Jewels’ – Cash or freedom for all to view?

Our proud nation of sports fans will be joyfully clapping at the news of the Free-to-Air ‘Crown Jewels’ suggestions from a recently announced independent report. This included the likely return of ‘The Ashes’ and away international football matches to terrestrial TV, but the removal of the Winter Olympics from the protected list.

Lets put this into perspective. This is only a recommendation report from David Davies (and a panel of broadcasters and former professional athletes), which has been passed onto the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw to be reviewed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport over a period of 3 months.

The decision to bring back ‘The Ashes’ to Free-to-Air TV has disappointed ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) Chief Giles Clarke warning that it could lead to a ‘decade of delay’ for Cricket. ECB have a £300m contract with Sky and Five to provide Test Match coverage (Five currently show home series highlights) until 2013.

This money has been actively used to invest into many projects at the grass roots levels of the game, including opening the sports academy in Exeter, investment in England Women’s and Schools' Cricket; supporting all 18 Counties, employing 23,000 coaches and maintaining the 9 test grounds in England and Wales.  To lose the money generated from Sky will have massive repercussions on ECB and will without doubt cost jobs and funding.

The question is who will screen ‘The Ashes’ series in the UK? ITV seem quite content with their current sporting events: FA Cup rights, Champions League, Rugby World Cup, The Boat Race and of course the show-piece of 2010 FIFA World Cup. Channel 4 does not massively invest in sport, so that leaves BBC and Five.

BBC hasn’t screened Test cricket since 1998, but invests heavily in Radio, like the very popular Test Match Special (TMS).  For BBC to get the rights back will be a crying shame for the game and here’s why. BBC love Wimbledon and portraits every tradition that is BBC: they will do everything to keep Tennis’s major event on their screen. This will ultimately clash with ‘The Ashes’ - yes, they have more than one channel and there is the interactive service.  But what about those with an HD service?  BBC only has one channel for that! And if they have a choice it’s likely to be SW19 as opposed to NW1.

Five are possibly in the best position - they currently have rights to screen England Test Match highlights and have kept the commentary team from Channel 4’s cricket coverage, including Mark Nicholas, Geoff Boycott and Simon Hughes.  The biggest test for Five will be a financial one: they don’t posses the clout of either Sky, BBC or ITV.

The Ashes is a massive sporting event but it should be the decision of ECB to decide who has the rights to show it. If Sky have invested the money and can provide the coverage it deserves, they should have the right to show it exclusively.  If Free-to-Air companies want to obtain those rights, then they are encouraged to bid for them and create genuine competition. The problem is that Test cricket was taken off the Crown Jewel’s list 10 years ago. Now after England winning The Ashes back and ECB having a contract with Sky, noise is being made about bringing it back.  But what about other cricket series? The Crown Jewels aren’t interested in them. England vs. West Indies, South Africa and India are also key test match series and are the highlight to the English cricket summer.  Sky also screen live cricket at county level, including the popular Twenty20 Cup, The County Championship and The Friends Provident Trophy.

The ECB and Sky will fight tooth and nail to ensure that rights stay with Sky, there are still many overs left to be bowled in this innings.