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UKA 2009 Logo

24 November 2009

Article as featured in Athletics Weekly by Ed Warner - UKA Chairman

David Davies’s review of the ‘crown jewels’ of British sport may not at first sight appear to have much relevance for athletics, but it threatens a shift in the broadcasting landscape that could have consequences far beyond the jewels themselves.

The Free-to-Air Listed Events Review, to give it the DCMS’s formal title, has been 11 months in the making. On the cusp of its unveiling last Friday it received a flurry of pre-publicity with suggestions that a government decision to force coverage of cricket’s Ashes away from pay TV was somehow a revenge on News Corporation, owners of Sky TV, for the Sun’s decision to switch allegiance to the Tories ahead of next year’s election. Which, by the by, tells us much once again about the media’s obsession with the media.

It remains to be seen whether the ticking electoral clock will allow sufficient time for consultation and then implementation. And a different government, if one is elected, might have different ideas. And the newly selected crown jewels are tied into current broadcast contracts, some of which have years to run yet – so implementation would take some time.

Nevertheless, any shift in the balance of power away from satellite and cable and towards free-to-air broadcasters must make life more difficult for sports such as athletics which are not deemed to provide events with so-called national resonance.

At UKA we are delighted that the Aviva Sponsored major events that we organise are on free-to-air BBC, and that major international athletics championships enjoy the same broadcast platform. It’s important for sustaining interest in the sport, and commercially it is important for our sponsors. Thankfully, last year we renewed our contract with the BBC through to 2014. But over the long term we must be concerned that precious sporting hours and resources will be eaten up by major events forced away from their pay TV homes.

Other channels already host some athletics – Sky broadcasting the recent World Half Marathon, for example, and Eurosport offering an alternative window on many major events. Earlier this year Channel Four aired our Aviva European Indoor trials and during the summer the popular McCain Track and Field show. Over time, the continued growth of digital television, leading to the imminent analogue switch-off, opens up a number of opportunities for all sports. Indeed, the BBC has shown the way with its increasing use of the ‘red button’ to expand the range of live sports available.

The problem, however, is that you need to know to look for the sport you want to watch, which is fine for the die-hard fan but doesn’t ensure you capture the interest of the casual observer. To me it is not just the crown jewels that need nurturing - if the ECB makes a commercial choice in favour of a smaller Ashes audience then that is the risk they choose to take – but the other sports which seek and deserve a level playing field in the broadcast market.