A flurry of furious lobbying accompanied the run-up to this week’s
keenly awaited Lords’ debate on the battle over the broadcasting rights
to top sporting events
Two powerful teams, opposing camps of voluble supporters, strong
emotions, cries of ‘foul’, and a final showdown at the hallowed scene of
many great matches - the battle over sporting media rights had all the
hallmarks of a major sporting event.
On one side, politicians from all parties, including former-Labour
sports minister Lord Howell, the BBC and consumer groups, battled to
strengthen terrestrial TV’s right to major sports events. They were
opposed by a similarly heavyweight team including satellite broadcaster
BSkyB, sports’ governing bodies and some said, by subterfuge, the
The battle climaxed this week with the debate in the House of Lords on
the Broadcasting Bill. The argument was prompted by rising concern that
terrestrial TV, particularly the BBC, simply cannot compete in sports
rights auctions against BSkyB. Its recent success, as a member of the
European Broadcasting Union, in beating the News Corporation bid for
the Olympics was a not-able exception. In recent years BSkyB has
acquired rights to the Ryder Cup, overseas cricket Tests, live
Premiership football and rugby league’s new Super League.
These BBC losses - compounded by recent ITV gains of such BBC pearls as
Formula One and the FA Cup Final - led commentators to concur that the
BBC’s days as a great sports broadcaster had come to an end.
Both sides rallied around lofty clarion calls. BSkyB declared that
British sport has benefited hugely from its investments and that it had
encouraged terrestrial innovation, while sports’ governing bodies
stressed their history of responsible self-government and demanded the
right to continue running their own affairs. The opposition feared the
lack of mass coverage of sport’s ‘crown jewels’ would sap national unity
and could even cause the death of sport.
Lobbying was carried out by both in-house and external outfits. The BBC
used its own public affairs team, headed by Leighton Andrews. The
campaign also cut across other departments dealing with press, audience
research and internal communications.
In the final days before the debate, BBC ammunition included an audience
survey, which cited wide public support for mainstream TV to keep the
rights to major sporting fixtures; a parliamentary bulletin devoted to
the survey and rights issue, and a poll which found the majority of MPs
supported the terrestrial argument. Andrews said actual lobbying of
members was kept low-key, with just one mailing to peers in the run-up
to the vote. ‘The BBC is not in the position of BSkyB, which can take
out double-page advertisements in national newspapers. We could not
spend licence fee-payers money like that.’
Sports’ governing bodies used both internal and outside agencies to put
their case. Although many argued for the principle of self-government,
several felt the Bill’s other provisions, notably those relating to the
development of digital terrestrial television, were more important.
The Test and County Cricket Board depended on its PR manager Richard
Little, supported by one secretary, to direct its lobbying. Little says
the TCCB linked up with cricket supporters in both Houses, notably
through its all-party parliamentary cricket group. It also used links
with the National Heritage Committee, the ministry and held discussions
Arguing against demands for the ‘list’ of eight sporting events to be safeguarded for terrestrial TV, Little says the TCCB want Test matches
involving England excluded from such a list. ‘Our Test matches make up
around 180 hours of television, against the Derby’s four or five
minutes,’ said Little. ‘We feel we are being penalised. Our record shows
that we have always handled sport responsibly and made sure that our
product has got across to the masses.’
The Football Association, FA Premier League and the Football League
employed lobby firm Westminster Strategy. Director Mike Lee said the
amendments led the agency to intensify its briefing programme to
Government and Opposition members. But he stressed that the recent
brouhaha should not obscure wider issues.
‘Clearly emotions are running high but there are important aspects to
this Bill which should not be lost in the heat of the sports rights
debate,’ said Lee. ‘The development of digital broadcasting opens up new
horizons which may not have been fully understood by those not directly
involved in the discussion.’
Pre-vote activity was not over until the final whistle of the Lords’
vote. The Department for National Heritage discussion document on
sporting media rights, published unexpectedly on Friday, was seen by
Lord Howell and others as an attempt to undermine the amendments in
favour of BSkyB.
But if it was a deliberate ploy, it was unsuccessful as far as the
battle for the hearts and minds of Peers was concerned. In Tuesday’s
vote, the Lords voted to stop the broadcasting rights to eight listed
sporting events from being sold exclusively to subscription channels.
This round appears to have gone in favour of the terrestrial forces.
But if they think it’s all over, it isn’t yet. On the same day as the
Lords’ vote, the OFT referred TV contracts involving the Premier League,
BSkyB and the BBC to the Restrictive Practices Court.
In the next round of this televisual bout, the BBC and BSkyB could even
find themselves in the unusual position of being on the same side.