Why are we asking now?
At 10am this morning anxious executives from several of the governing bodies for British sports will be poring through a report by David Davies, once executive director of the Football Association. It fell to Davies to conduct an investigation into which leading sports, if any, should be compelled to sell their television rights to free-to-air broadcasters. His conclusions are not likely to please all who are affected by them.
In December last year, Davies, an executive poacher turned gamekeeper, was asked by Andy Burnham, then the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, to review the standing of the "Crown Jewels" of UK sport and how they are broadcast, especially in view of the 2012 digital switchover.
The most striking aspect of his findings is expected to be that home Ashes Tests should be made freely available – that is, not just to subscribers on Sky Sports as they currently are.
What are the crown jewels exactly?
At the moment there are two lists of sporting events that have to be shown in some form on terrestrial TV, the intention being to safeguard them for the supposed greater good of the nation. If England win the World Cup, so the argument goes, then we should all be able to see it and share in it.
The A-list are those that can only be broadcast live by terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five. On it is the Olympics, football's World Cup and European Championship finals, the English and Scottish FA Cup finals, the Grand National, the Derby, Wimbledon, rugby union's World Cup final and rugby league's Challenge Cup final.
The B-list was introduced in 1998, the last time this issue was explored, and is for events that require highlights to be shown on terrestrial TV. Again cricket was the headline act, with Test matches being shifted from A to B much to the anger of many fans, but to the relief of the England and Wales Cricket Board which had lobbied hard for the switch.
Other events currently on the B-list include the Open Golf Championship, the Ryder Cup, cricket's World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and rugby union's Six Nations.
What was Davies and his panel asked to do?
Davies, who was a BBC journalist before he joined the FA, assembled a diverse group, which included Colin Jackson, the former Olympic hurdler, Angus Fraser, the former England cricketer, Eamonn Holmes and Dougie Donnelly, BBC Scotland's long-serving sport presenter, to consider firstly whether there should be a list of protected events – an emphatic "yes" was the verdict – and if so what sports should be on it.
The decisive factor when considering what events qualify for what list was whether the event unites the nation and provides a moment of resonance. Davies' panel was not asked to consider the financial implications of any listing for the sports involved, and it is that in particular that has so enraged a number of sporting bodies.
What happens now?
Davies delivered his report on Tuesday to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport where it will be considered by Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State, and Gerry Sutcliffe, the Sports minister. There is expected to be a further 12-week period of consideration before any decisions are made on which, if any, of the panel's recommendations are to be acted upon.
While the simple fact of the list, and whether the Ashes and its ilk are on it, will be the main issue, the report is expected to explore much wider concerns over the future of sport TV rights and the list itself, given the speed at which the broadcasting world is changing.
In 2014, when the next cricket TV deal begins, the analogue signal will be long gone and channels such as Sky 1 should be universally available. Aside from the Ashes, the report is thought to remove the Derby and rugby league's Challenge Cup final from the list, while the whole concept of a B-list will be done away with altogether.
That seems likely to leave (alongside the Ashes) the Olympics, home nations' international football qualifiers, Wimbledon and The Open as protected events.
Will the Government act on the recommendations?
Not if the ECB can help it. Cricket will be the loudest and angriest voice in the forthcoming debate while, with a general election on the way next summer, the whole playing field could soon be very different anyway. The Conservatives are broadly in favour of a list "for events of true national resonance", but, if they come to power – in contrast to Labour's escalating conflict with the Murdoch empire – they are set to turn their sights on the BBC, who would be one of the beneficiaries of any expanded list. There are also legal complications: a similar project in Belgium is subject to a legal challenge.
Why is there so much opposition from cricket officials?
The ECB is embarking on a four-year £300m deal with Sky that gives the broadcaster exclusive rights to all home Test matches – including the next home Ashes series in 2013 – and all domestic cricket in this country.
They argue that if you take out the Ashes that will cost them upwards of £100m in broadcasting income (80 per cent of their income comes from broadcasting) and the effect of that will be most keenly felt by the grassroots.
More people may watch the game on terrestrial TV and more may then want to take it up, but there will be less money to improve facilities and pay coaches – the ECB has 23,000 new coaches involved in the game thanks to broadcast funds.
The ECB say that 20 per cent of their expenditure goes on grassroots and that will be heaviest hit by any fall in income. In contrast, the organisers of the Epsom Derby are more than happy to be given free rein. "It is good news," said a spokesperson for the Jockey Club. They had argued that there should not be a list at all as it is an "anachronism" in the modern multi-channel world.
Shouldn't we be able to watch sport on television for free?
Nearly 12 million people watched Andy Murray's epic late-night fourth-round encounter with Stanislas Wawrinka at Wimbledon this summer on the BBC. When England won the Ashes at The Oval in 2005 seven million people watched on Channel 4.
Four years on, when Andrew Strauss's men earned that stunning victory over Australia in August two million tuned into to Sky Sports. Sky simply cannot match the BBC in particular when it comes to delivering mass audiences, but then the BBC cannot match Sky when it comes to time and money dedicated to a sport.
Isn't all this simply about Labour's war with Rupert Murdoch?
No. This report was commissioned at the end of last year when the two sides were, if not bosom buddies, still at relative peace.
Davies is an apolitical figure who has been highly praised for his conduct in carrying out the review – the ECB has no bone to pick with the chairman. But, in the current climate, it will only help to cloud a complex issue even further.
Is English cricket right to fear a return to crown jewel status?
* Few sports depend so much on their broadcasting income; without the Ashes, cricket will be poorer
* The ECB has invested heavily in the sport's grass-roots and that will fall dramatically given a cut in income
* Sky's coverage has been excellent; and there is no guarantee the BBC will produce as much quality
* They may earn less money from TV, but the sport's profile will be significantly increased
* A higher profile will lead to more people wanting to play cricket – which can only benefit the game
* The sport prospered on the BBC and Channel 4 long before Sky came along; it could do so againReuse content