Davies puts himself in the firing line

Proposals to change broadcasting rights for major British sports events have been met with fury from the bodies concerned. Donald Trelford looks at why
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The Independent Online

When David Davies was executive director of the Football Association, he was popular within the world of sport as a smart operator and a decent bloke. Had he sought free tickets for Wimbledon, the Lord's Test or the Open Golf Championship, he would have been welcomed. I doubt if such warm feelings have survived publication of his report on the broadcasting of sport's listed events.

Indeed, the heads of those sports – the All England Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, plus Mr Davies's former employers, the FA – can be fairly described as incandescent at his committee's proposals. If enacted, they believe their finances would be seriously damaged, with knock-on effects down to the grassroots. The ECB claims the report is "so flawed as to be invalid."

The consultation period on the report ended at the weekend. As a result, the desk of Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, will be piled high this morning with fiercely worded objections from the major sports bodies, some with legal threats attached. A common complaint is that the committee made no assessment of the financial impact of their proposals on the sports affected, saying this was a judgment for politicians to make. The DCMS, however, has declined to make such an impact assessment. The sports believe this may provide grounds for a judicial review.

Under the present set-up, there is a List A and a List B. Sports on List A, such as the Olympic Games, the World and European football finals, the Cup Final, the Derby, the Grand National, the Wimbledon finals, the Rugby League Cup Final and the final of the Rugby World Cup, have to be shown free to air on a terrestrial TV channel. Sports on List B, such as Test matches played in England, the Six Nations rugby tournament, the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and the British Open golf tournament, can be shown on satellite channels as long as a highlights package is shown free to air.

The Davies committee, which included Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson and broadcaster Eamonn Holmes, proposes abolishing List B altogether and lengthening the list of events to be shown on terrestrial TV. Instead of just listing the Wimbledon finals, they propose that the tournament "in its entirety" should be shown free to air. Tennis claims this is doubly damaging to the sport: it means there is no market in which they can negotiate a price among rival bidders, and it prevents them directly selling overseas rights to matches involving foreign players. ITV and Channel 4 are seen as too weak financially to be serious bidders in the terrestrial market.

When the Open golf was on List B, satellite channels could bid for the championship, forcing the BBC to pay a market price. The event has been shown on the BBC for 56 years, and the sport is happy with the arrangement, but they fear that if there is no market, the BBC (with its budget under pressure following the recent review) would feel duty-bound to cut the price it offers. The committee puts home Ashes Test matches on the list, which again means that the ECB would get substantially less for the rights if Sky was not allowed to bid. Cricket, says ECB chairman Giles Clarke, would face "a funding crisis from the playground to the Test arena".

Davies's own sport, football, would be required to show free to air England's home and away qualifying matches in the World Cup and the European championship. Yet, as the FA points out, it does not even hold the broadcasting rights to, say, an England match played in Kazakhstan. The Scottish FA would be required to show the Scottish Cup Final free to air, leaving it with no bargaining position. Welsh matches in the Six Nations would have to be shown on terrestrial TV in Wales, but (curiously) England's would not have to be shown in England.

With a general election expected in two months, it seems unlikely that Bradshaw will be able to handle all these complex objections in time and may anyway be disinclined politically to force such unpopular changes through. That, at least, is what the sports bodies are praying for.