Edition number 26; dateline 2 December 2009

The revolution will not be televised

It would take someone with a heart of stone not to laugh at news of the parlous state of the Dubai property market. In an orgy of excess, Dubai attempted to position itself as the world’s most spectacular sporting venue, home of the biggest events and the biggest stars, and, to the shame of so many sports governing bodies and sports people, they made a pretty good fist of it. Until now. Another bubble of bling bursts, making the eyes of everyone who was standing too near sting with tears of falling values and lost investments.

It is timely that news of a property boom literally and metaphorically built on sand should hit the headlines just as the UK government is preparing to publish (some unkindly suggest that the apposite phrase would be ‘sneak out’) a twelve-week consultation on the matter of the sale of sporting television broadcasting rights. There has already been much wailing from the broadcasters and governing bodies that make a fortune out of selling our sports back to us, every outraged statement of self-justification more heart-rending and emetic than the last. The broadcasters (by which we usually mean Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB) say that their innovative and exciting coverage is good for the sports in question, bringing new audiences and new exposure. The governing bodies of sport thus courted are all in agreement, arguing that the sale of broadcasting rights is now essential to the grassroots of their sport; without the nutrient-enhancing streams of cash the sports that they have carefully nurtured into the modern world after many decades or even centuries of darkness will simply die. From this perspective the logic is simple: TV rights equals money; money equals grassroots investment; therefore TV rights equals grassroots development.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (also known, somewhat forgetfully, as the ECB) has, like many of the “big sports” been making a lot of noise. It is fearful of any threat to the £300 million of Mr Murdoch’s money that is scheduled to end up in their coffers by 2013. Allowing anyone but Sky viewers to see Test match cricket would reduce this largesse next time the contracts were up for review, threatening every development programme and local cricket club in the country (and even Wales). Test match cricket itself, already dying on its feet around the globe, could be driven from these shores unless very few people are allowed to see it. A queue of indignant former sports people has quickly formed to assert their right to an argument-settling opinion. Step forward the King of Spain, who recognises the prospect of free-to-air Test cricket as “quite dangerous territory”. Why should commercial broadcasters’ interests be threatened by the BBC, asks Ashley Giles (for it is he). “We all believe there should be an open system of bidding but we also have to remember that the last time the rights were up for grabs the BBC did not even make an offer.” The diminution of the ECB’s right to squeeze as much money out of Sky as possible could threaten the status quo, a situation in which, according to Mr Giles, “cricket in this country seems to be going very much in the right direction”.

Really, Ash? It might be going in the right direction for those making a living from the sporting structures bloated by television income but from the perspective of those with fewer interests to declare that seems quite a statement. If it is all going so well, one might be tempted to ask why the ECB are having to chase £300 million to save the game from decline, decay and death. Or why cricket, once a leitmotif for fair play around the world, has become yet another tawdry exercise in sharp practice, simulation and hubris both on and off the field. Or why, if everything is going so very much in the right direction, the county game is apparently (and perpetually) only a single TV deal away from oblivion. And why, if the people that run the game are so bloody clever, you cannot get your own nickname correct on a tea mug?

Cricket is just one example of the current reality, a reality in which the pursuit of money has become an end in itself for so many of our major sporting governing bodies. All the talk is of grassroots but so much of the expenditure seems, to the ordinary spectator being asked to fork out ever-increasing sums for a ticket, to be going on new job titles, bonuses (for the renegotiation of broadcasting rights, naturally) and the salaries of the “talent”; and by “talent” they mean the sportsmen (and, by the nature of major sports, it is most commonly men) who then use the excuse of their status as highly paid celebrities to make more money from off-field endorsements and activities while removing themselves as far and as quickly as possible from the inconveniences of the people who watch them play and ultimately from the game itself. Like the Dubai property market, this is a perfect circle of hubris. The players view themselves as providing the value for which the broadcasters pay handsomely, so they want higher salaries. The governing bodies then have to buy into the Narnia of broadcasting rights negotiations on the basis that they have to pay the salaries that keep the game vibrant for a TV audience and justify their status as a major sport, with the administrative structures, salaries and bonuses that go with it. The spectators are then told that they should expect to pay more to watch the games which have now become “major sporting events”. They also have to swallow all the changes to the game, the ground and the timetable in the name of progress and the “real world” of the international sports broadcasting market.

Leaving to one side the fact that there is a genuine case to be made that the major sporting events are part of our national cultural heritage (and unlike the ECB we at The Leisure Review are pleased and proud to include Wales in that), the most irritating aspect of this cavalcade of greed is that it is all processed in the name of sports development. If it were really about getting more youngsters to play the game (whichever game it may be) no one but a fool or a knave would deny the value of enabling a huge audience to see the game live for free by virtue of the BBC. The vision of the sporting future is provided by football, the game that dominates so much of the sporting coverage in the UK and around the world. The English Premier League, established, lest we forget, to put the interests of the England national team at the pinnacle of the professional game, brought in £1.3 billion from Sky alone for the latest batch of 2010-13 rights. It gives £15 million a year to the Football Foundation. Every year the average age of the live audience for Premier League football gets a year older and every year more youngsters are lost to the game. And every year that the ECB makes more money out of Sky than it could out of the BBC, millions of regular viewers, and consequently another swathe of regular players, are lost to their game.

The message to the governing bodies wondering how they will make ends meet without the broadcasting money, or wondering whether to make further changes to their game at the behest of the broadcasters who are now calling the tune, is simply this. Feel free to make as much money out of the game as you possibly can but please don’t do it in the name of grassroots sport. While you count your bonuses we’ll be outside, playing.

Jonathan Ives



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The diminution of the ECB’s right to squeeze as much money out of Sky as possible could threaten the status quo, a situation in which, according to Mr Giles, “cricket in this country seems to be going very much in the right direction”.

Really, Ash?”

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