POSTED: April 19th 2010

NEIL WILSON: Sky is the limit when TV focus returns to 'crown jewels'

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An authoritative, exclusive new series only from Sports Features Communications

LONDON, Apr 06: One decision put on hold in Britain until after the General Election on May 6 has serious implications for sport: should cricket’s Ashes series between England and Australia, rugby union’s World Cup and soccer’s home World Cup qualifiers be among those protected events which cannot be sold to television’s highest bidder?

These are known as Listed Events, sporting occasions which have “national resonance,” the so-called “crown jewels”. Only television channels available to 95 per cent of the British public may bid for them, effectively eliminating the money bags at Sky.

The cricket authorities, naturally, are upset about the possibility of losing their right to sell the Ashes series to the likes of Sky. It will cost the game money desperately needed revenue to fund its future development, it argues.

That begs a question all sports face, and not only in Britain: which is better, more money or more viewers? Do you best promote your sport with the greater money obtained from niche sports channels such as Rupert Murdoch’s Sky or by welcoming greater access on terrestrial networks where there is a broader audience?

The example of football would suggest that sports channels have the edge. Football in Britain was transformed when Sky became exclusive owner of Premier League rights. More money and more interest.

However, the huge world-wide appeal of football may make it a special case, the exception that proves the rule that sport cannot afford not to be on television.

Remote access

Athletics’ case, indeed, argues for the opposite. When the IAAF decided to sell its Golden League to the highest bidders, including Sky, it became an endangered series. You needed specialist knowledge to find it on your remote controller.

IAAF did not learn its lesson. It declined the European Broadcasting Union’s $60m offer for rights in favour of $80m promised by Sweden’s TV marketeer IEC and immediately two of its world events disappeared this year from free-to-air screens in Germany and Britain, two major markets.

Perversely, the International Olympic Committee, an organisation not short of a healthy bank balance, has also gone for money over access for the first time.

It declined EBU’s offer for the Games of 2014 and 2016, and gave European rights in all but four countries to agents SportFive.

Already those rights have been sold to Murdoch-owned pay-channels in Italy and Turkey. Another Murdoch channel bid for German rights. By 2016 the Olympic 100 metres final could be a pay-per-view event in many countries.

Not though in Britain . . . unless the Murdoch organisation can twist the arm of the new government to remove the summer Olympics from the Listed Events. Stranger things have happened.

NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · Neil Wilson · listed events · Murdoch · Sky · IOC

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