Monday 25 September 2017

In search of a balance between exposure and revenue

As The Open moves to Sky, John Greene asks if we should do more to safeguard some events

Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of the R&A
Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of the R&A
John Greene

John Greene

IT is now officially a feeding frenzy. The rights to broadcast live Premier League matches are for auction and there are billions of euro swirling around.

The competing broadcasters submitted sealed bids for various packages amounting to a total of 168 live games over three seasons including, for the first time, Friday night matches. The sealed bids were opened on Friday and the winning ones will be announced in the coming weeks. And Premier League clubs will be an estimated €6bn better off.

Since the dawn of the Premier League era, we have become accustomed to the astronomical sums paid for these television rights. A much bigger shock last week, though, was the departure of The Open Golf Championship from the BBC, its home for the last 60 years, to Sky Sports.

The Open is one of those venerable sporting events which is held in the highest esteem because of the history and tradition associated with it. Even in Ireland, we view it in the same light as, for example, the Grand National, the Derby and Wimbledon. Which makes it all the harder to understand why The Open has been allowed to move to pay per view TV, while the other three events mentioned must be available, under law, on free channels like the BBC and ITV.

Under European Union rules, member countries can make a list of sporting events to be designated as 'events of major importance', which must be available to be shown live on a free television service. This is done in the public interest. Countries can also create a second category of events which must at least have highlights broadcast free to air.

The decision to sell the live rights to The Open to Sky has brought attention on the fact that there are inconsistencies in how these lists of so-called important events are drawn up.

The mystery is how The Open, one of the crown jewels of the British sporting calendar, was placed in the second bracket of events, while others, including rugby league's Challenge Cup final, the FA Cup final and the Wimbledon finals, remained protected.

In every discussion around media rights and sport, there is talk about finding the right balance. This is the fine line between the need of sporting organisations to raise revenues to fund their activities and the need to have as wide an audience as possible to help grow and promote their sport. Soccer has pretty much made its mind up on this score, but its global popularity makes it easier for it to do so. And England's games in the European Championships and World Cup finals are listed. So too, as it happens, are the Republic of Ireland's here, as are home and away games in qualifying events for both tournaments.

The situation in Britain with regard to inconsistencies is very much mirrored in Ireland. So while international football is included in our laws around broadcasting rights, Ireland's games in the Six Nations are not. The prospect of the Six Nations moving to Sky Sports or BT Sport - both of which continue to invest heavily in purchasing media rights - was raised recently and if the tournament's organisers decide to go down this route, there is nothing to stop them. It's hard to fathom how the IRFU can, if it chooses, sell Ireland's games to the highest bidder, but the FAI cannot. The question is, would they be doing the right thing for their sport in the long-term? Easy money versus greater exposure - how do you choose?

While soccer is well equipped to thrive in this environment, can the same be said of other sports, such as rugby, golf - or Gaelic games?

In defending the decision to move The Open to Sky, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, was conveniently dismissive of this argument last week. "We have looked at this issue very carefully and believe it is not possible to make an informed case that participation is simply and directly linked to free-to-air television viewing," he said. "There is no question that free-to-air sports broadcasts generate good exposure for sport, we see this time and again through the Olympic Games, the World Cup and Wimbledon. But, firm conclusions about their positive impact on participation cannot be drawn."

It may be that linking the tradition and history around some sporting events, both here and in Britain, with the likes of the BBC and RTé is a somewhat quaint and old-fashioned notion, but the question of the benefits of enjoying a wider audience is not so easily dismissed as Dawson might like. Take last year's 20 most-watched sporting events on RTé for example. RTé's sports coverage is very often criticised, sometimes fairly, other times unfairly, but it's worth noting that 19 of those top 20 events were available on other channels. The home-based free-to-air station still won out comfortably. (As a matter of interest, number one on the list was Ireland's win over France in Paris in last year's Six Nations.)

This at a time when, with the possible exception of Switzerland, Ireland is in the most competitive sports television market in Europe, with Sky, BT Sport, BBC, ITV, Setanta, TV3 and UTV Ireland all broadcasting here. The reality is that RTé simply cannot compete with the financial might of most of those stations if they end up in a bidding war. The purchasing power of the first two in particular is so vast that there is even every possibility that they could buy up rights on a pan-European deal and freeze out all national broadcasters.

Competition in the marketplace is naturally a good thing, but given the levels of public funding that go into sport here and in Britain, and given the levels of public interest also, it is right that some level of protection for those events which have rank in the national affection is provided.

The Government is currently reviewing Ireland's designated events. In fact, it has been doing so for some time - submissions were sought last year and the deadline for receipt was August, so the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Alex White, has had plenty of time to carefully study some of the blatant inconsistencies and omissions in the list. Let us hope that while he dithers, there is no harm done.

jgreene@independent.ie

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