ANALYSIS: TV sports rights row goes into extra time

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

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

with MPs.

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.

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