The Sad Demise of Free-to-Air Sport

With every passing year, I feel more grateful for the era and surroundings in which I grew up. The 2000s were a golden time for sport, which was more accessible and less hostile than today. On any given night, I could flick through the portable TV and be transported to alternate worlds of lush escapism, totally free of charge.

I might have stumbled across Martin Palermo and Juan Roman Riquelme playing for Boca Juniors on Channel 5, or become engrossed by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz batting for the Boston Red Sox. I may have found a glorious rerun of Ajax against PSV from Amsterdam, or highlights of the Stanley Cup playoffs, without signing my life away for the pleasure.

As a kid, I fell in love with obscure and wonderful sport through these means. I was particularly besotted with Major League Baseball and football from the Netherlands and South America. Similarly, Champions League nights were some of the most magical of my childhood, from the Milan-Juventus final at Old Trafford in 2003 to the unforgettable majesty of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola.

That such an array of sport could be watched on terrestrial TV was a privileged that still touches my soul. It was sheer bliss, a gift for which I’m eternally thankful. It was, quite simply, a halcyon age of freedom, when people didn’t take themselves too seriously and conglomerates were yet to create a gaping casm between sport and its fans.

By contrast, my sport-watching experience as an adult has been very dissatisfying. Much of the enchantment has been lost beneath a mountain of bureaucracy, the meaning obscured behind an imposing paywall. A teenager of modernity would struggle to comprehend just how much sport was once available on free-to-air TV, which speaks to a landscape that has been altered almost beyond recogition.

It’s sad that many children can no longer switch on the TV and simply enjoy sport. Sure, we have Match of the Day and major events every two or four years, but most elite sport is now inaccessible without negotiating a minefield of subscriptions and appeasing companies who’ve interjected themselves into the process just for the sake of profit. For example, it would now cost more than £900 per year to watch the sports that were free on my childhood TV. How are working class families from a similar background supposed to afford that? For many, it’s not even worth considering.

Capitalism has made sport a thing to be guarded and hid, rationed mainly to the wealthy. But I believe sport shouldn’t belong to any one person. Governing bodies should not act like businesses, and genteel pastimes should not be obfuscated by commercial machinery. Football, once a game for the masses, is now a product, a brand, an asset bound by copyright, rather than something we can all enjoy freely and socially. Frankly, the world of sport TV rights has outgrown the world of sport, and very few people are standing up for the little man. By all means, have stewards and guardians for sport, but they have to take a more realistic and compassionate outlook rather than caring solely about the bottom line.

Obviously, subscription channels have a right to operate and make profit, just like any person or entity. If people are willing to pay, their system is seemingly validated. Furthermore, the increased revenue from pay TV has contributed to better facilities and standards in many sports, which deserves adequate recognition. However, there’s a proud history of sport on terrestrial TV in this country, and I feel that tradition has largely been lost.

The bygone boom began in the 1980s, with Channel 4 introducing Britain to Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and the colourful world of American football. The success of that innovation led Channel 5 to follow a similar path in the nineties, and it’s sporting commitment created something of a nirvana. At various times, Five held the rights to all four major North American sports leagues, with baseball, presented by the immortal Jonny Gould, becoming its longest running show. Late night sport on Five was a phenomenon, and people simply fell in love with the coverage and culture.

Mark Webster was a major part of that. A veteran sports presenter, Mark fronted the basketball coverage for Five after an earlier stint with Channel 4. “All the terrestrial channels will dip in and out of seeing sport as good for ratings, credibility and revenue,” he explains. “During that period, Channel Five really went for it, and I’d assume for all three of those reasons. They certainly put themselves on the historical map as a crucial part of building a profile for North American sport.

“To essentially be the fan in the hot seat, and then get to pick the brains and swap giggles with fellas who really knew their onions was great,” Webster continues. “I really got to spread my wings by including so much of the cultural element of basketball coverage. For instance, having Coolio in the studio in the middle of the night, talking about sport and music, was marvellous.”

Unfortunately, free-to-air coverage of such variety and appeal is now consigned to memory. The decline of terrestrial sports coverage, in both quality and volume, has felt almost inexorable for a whole generation of people. The present landscape, bland and dissatisfying, can be traced directly to 1990, when BSkyB was formed at the forefront of a satellite revolution. Many consider it sport’s Big Bang moment, the singular explosion that set beloved hobbies on course for a different commercial stratosphere. Certainly, things haven’t been the same since.

When the football season finished in 1991, first division clubs voted unanimously to break away and form the Premier League, a competition that allowed its members greater commercial autonomy. Most notably, clubs wrestled control of their negotiating rights with regard to TV, as Sky outbid ITV to make a £304 million investment.

“Sky’s acquisition of Premier League rights was the first time that a pay TV broadcaster had a top sporting event in the UK,” says Julian Moore, a sports rights lawyer at Pinsent Masons. “In terms of the sports broadcasting market, it was the game-changer. Had that deal failed, perhaps things would have been different, but it was a success, and one that led to Sky’s dominance of the market.”

Indeed, Sky built an empire around its Premier League hub. It paid £670 million to renew the contract in 1997, before a further outlay of £1.1 billion in 2001. By that point, Sky was racing far ahead of its major competitors, with its vast budget far outstripping what anybody else could afford. The channel dabbled with early NFL coverage, while the Champions League was another lucrative product. In time, wise people tried to replicate the Sky model, with channels such as Setanta Sports, ESPN and BT Sport forming from a pool of residual envy. This was a major blow for terrestrial sport, which struggled to survive amid constant pressure from the big boys who set the new market precedent.

Back in 1991, Home Secretary Kenneth Baker foresaw the dystopian eventuality, and suggested ring-fencing certain sports solely for terrestrial coverage. This was the genesis of a movement that led to the Independent Television Commission drawing up a list of protected events that would remain free-to-air, away from the juggernaut poachers. The list was subsequently revised in 1997, and currently states that sacrosanct events – such as the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, among others – must be shown live. The legislature also ensures that highlights of other events – home cricket internationals and the like – are shown on terrestrial channels.

The protected events list has been challenged on numerous occasions by companies that yearn to erect a paywall around its contents. However, at this point, it’s pretty much our only guard against the total loss of sport on terrestrial TV. Elsewhere, we’ve seen that Sky and BT have infinite budgets, which they’ve used effectively whenever rival channels have fallen on hard times. Therefore, the protected events list offers some salvation for those who cannot afford subscription TV.

In many respects, the success of pay TV is an extensive mosaic, compromised of tiles from the failure of terrestrial stations. For instance, when the global financial crisis put a strain on Channel Five in 2008, it was forced to cut costs, and its legendary North American sports coverage didn’t survive. Game 5 of the 2009 NBA finals, won by the Los Angeles Lakers over the Orlando Magic, was the final US sports event covered live by Five, bringing a sad end to a wonderful era that began with a New York Yankees-Seattle Mariners baseball game in 1997.

As millions mourned the loss of a magical late-night sports strand, ESPN seized an opportunity by moving into the British market and hoovering up the MLB and NBA rights. Sky expanded its NFL portfolio, although that league was admirably defiant in its desire for a terrestrial footprint in Britain, as Channel 4 enjoyed a renaissance between 2010-15.

Essentially, from 2010 onwards, it became an uphill battle to watch elite sport in this country without paying exorbitantly for the pleasure. My love for baseball was so intense that I purchased MLB TV, granting me access to every game, but the intimacy of Five’s coverage is still sorely missed. Moreover, my ability to follow gridiron, basketball and ice hockey has been severely hampered by the migration of rights to pay TV, and hope of any return is diminishing. Sky holds the rights to all NFL games until at least 2019, which is incredibly disheartening for those who cannot afford to pay.

However, the loss of mainstream sport to pay TV is perhaps even more worrying. BT paid £897 million for the rights to Champions League coverage this season, taking it off terrestrial TV for the first time since the competition was rebranded in 1992. Admittedly, the channel has made a handful of games available for free via its Showcase service, but the lack of viewer freedom is concerning.

Meanwhile, the BBC is haemorrhaging sport as it attempts to plug a £150 million black hole in its budget. With its allocation reduced by £35 million, the sports rights department has been forced into making a string of difficult decisions. In terms of rights, it has lost horse racing, French Open tennis, Football League highlights, Open and Masters golf, and Formula 1 in the past three years, while the contracts for darts and snooker may not be renewed beyond 2017. Even the Olympics will only be sub-licensed to the BBC from 2022, after it was outbid by the parent company of Eurosport.

While many of those contracts have been taken up by free-to-air rivals, some haven’t, as the range of options dwindles for casual fans. As Moore explains, terrestrial channels are restricted both by their budget and lack of advertising flexibility, which blunts their effectiveness in the war for sports rights. “The terrestrial channels simply can’t compete with the sums that Sky and BT Sports can,” he says. “That situation has been exacerbated by increased competition for rights, particularly amongst the pay TV broadcasters, which has driven the asking price even higher. I’m convinced that, amongst the terrestrial channels, the appetite exists to broadcast sport, but, for real premium content, they don’t have the budgets.”

Ultimately, terrestrial channels have a duty to provide diverse and well-rounded content for a large strata of society. We all like different things, and we all want to watch different shows. On the contrary, subscription sports channels are unburdened from that responsibility, and they have licence to throw their entire resources at one area. They don’t have to worry about crime documentaries when contemplating a run at NFL rights, or soap operas when pursuing the Champions League bounty. Accordingly, in the war for premium sports rights, they will always have the heavy machinery, while terrestrial executives can only muster spud guns.

So, what does the future hold? Well, our viewing habits have changed considerably, as the digital age eats at our time and more content is consumed on demand. But live sport seemingly overrides that concept and still has the power to unite us like little else. For instance, 17 million people watched Andy Murray win Wimbledon in 2013, while 90% of the British population watched part of the Olympics coverage a year earlier. Therefore, the appetite for elite sport on terrestrial TV is still definitely there, but it may go unsatisfied as with the simple machinations of finance.

Sport still enables the BBC to fulfil some of its key public purposes, and what coverage remains is typically of a high quality. Yet, in a post-broadcast age where the destination of sports rights is determined by crude money, it will be increasingly difficult for them to compete. The corporation is also set to make a £600 million commitment to cover the cost of TV licences for people over 75, which is a noble cause, but one that will tighten the margins even further.

Accordingly, we may require government legislation to maintain and possibly expand the breadth of sport on terrestrial TV. In all likelihood, subscription channels will continue to attack the listed events law, so we need it to remain robust, otherwise sport may disappear entirely from free-to-air screens.

Will we ever see the baseball World Series or extensive Champions League football return to terrestrial TV? With a heavy heart, my intuition says no. That boat has seemingly sailed, leaving only memories of a glorious age which may never be repeated.

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