Don’t give TV a free ride

Published on 7th July 2017
Author George Dodds

There’s not a lot of common ground between myself and Theresa May.
Despite both being products of grammar schools we differ fundamentally on almost everything but I will agree with her declaration that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
In fairness the Prime Minister – at the time of writing anyway – had the whole gamut of Brexit negotiations on her mind while my only concern is speedway on TV.
When Sky Sports decided to drop live speedway coverage from its schedules two years before the deal ran out the doomsaysers threw their hands up in horror – the end of the world was nigh.
Then along came the White Knights of BT Sport who picked up the slack and ensured that we were not missing from the screens, adding it to the GP and WTC coverage it picked up from Eurosport a couple of seasons ago.
BT began a slimmed down schedule with the British Final and by the simple expediency of employing a presenter/interviewer with huge knowledge of the sport immediately improved the product.
But then again BT can afford to employ a decent presenter as they don’t actually seem to be paying any money to screen speedway.
Apparently Sky is honouring the terms of the remaining years of its contract – although whether there was any cash in that is debatable – but presumably speedway is free to negotiate a deal with any interested party.
And this is where I invoke the spirit of Theresa.
It is not, as so many on the messageboards and twitter seem to think – a question of what the TV companies want of speedway but the exact opposite.
As a sport we should be laying down the terms and conditions under which the sport can be shown on TV – terrestrial, cable or satellite – and then invite interested parties to tender.
Top of the list is a weekly programme, of at least an hour’s duration, featuring at the very least highlights from the entire top league racing that week and fixtures for the following seven days. Covering all three leagues would be even better.
Secondly fixtures and results, including highlights, must be included in all sports’ news output.
Thirdly while live matches would be available to a broadcaster on a weekly basis any exclusivity would only be secured by payment of a substantial fee and exist only for TV rights. Rights for all other meetings and broadcast options – especially internet and digital – would remain with the sport’s governing body to dispose of as they saw fit.
Speedway needs to take the lead on any negotiations and set out its agenda to broadcasters rather than begging for any scraps they are prepared to throw from the table.
It should look to Rugby Union – a sport which draws limited TV audiences but is behind only football, cricket and Formula 1 when it comes to creating money from broadcast deals.
After years as the sport’s only broadcaster the BBC expected to be handed the rights to broadcast the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 only for the rights to go to ITV, where it has stayed ever since.
The arrival of first BSB then Sky and more recently BT saw rugby, especially in England, offer its league matches to the fledgling digital services while keeping internationals – Twickenham friendlies excepted – on terrestrial TV. Scottish and Welsh TV is able to negotiate separate deals for matches.
It was not afraid to offer new competitions such as the European Cup and Shield and Anglo-Welsh Cups simply to give the broadcasters live sport to televise.
Audiences were poor – around 300,000 for playoff club rugby – but the returns high, BT paying nearly £40million a year initially.
Crucially though Premiership Rugby retained the rights to their product and as a result there is a Youtube rugby channel, Premiership Rugby TV and club website E-players all of which have instant access to action highlights.
Additionally it has allowed the Premiership to either sell, or give away, highlights packages to ITV4 and, from next season, live matches on Channel 5.
A decade or so ago I was working for the Guardian Media Group in Manchester when it launched an ill-conceived attempt at bringing American-style localised city TV to the masses.
Among its output was The Biker Show, The Cricket Pavilion and Code XIII (rugby league), all genuine attempts at tapping into the popularity of Manchester’s top three summer sports.
They all ended up as dull, talking heads-type programmes because all three sports had exclusive deals with Sky which did not allow highlights to be shown, even on a local TV channel whose audience figures rarely reached four figures – even for Frank Sidebottom’s Proper Telly Show.
There is nothing worse than a sports’ show without any action and Channel M lost millions of pounds in double quick time and was quickly dumped – although the driving force behind it moved on from the wreckage and is currently chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union.
Another thing for our negotiators to remember is that any deal should be for the good of the sport and NOT the TV viewer.
Appearing on-screen is supposedly vital for any sport yet, if not in terms of hard cash, any benefit is theoretical to say the least – higher profile, attraction to sponsors, attracting armchair viewers through the turnstiles at their local track – all highly theoretical to say the least.
But it is up to the TV companies to create an audience, to soothe their ire when the cost of subscriptions rise and explain why being part of a capitalist society is the reason that they have to fork out more than one subscription if a sport sells its wares to more than one pay-to-watch organisation.
Live sport on TV allows people to see speedway and other sports from the comfort of their own home for a fraction of the cost of an individual meeting admission fee.
If the sport is not getting a substantial fee for being on screen then effectively those on the terraces and in the posh seats are subsidising those sat on the settee or in the pub.
And if BT – or Sky, Eurosport, Bein Sport, whoever – say they have no budget to pay for speedway perhaps they should be gently reminded that BT currently spends £7.6 million PER GAME to bring the mercenary madness of top division English football to the screens – Sky even more.
A few bob to televise live from near Poole Harbour is not too much to ask for.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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