The game is over for BBC as it loses the key battles for sport on television

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EXECUTIVES AT the BBC acknowledged yesterday that the loss of Test cricket was a devastating blow. They see the surrender of the contract as an unwillingness, rather than inability, in the BBC to pay market rates for high-profile sports.

The loss is the latest element in a long, slow decline in the amount of high-profile sports on the BBC, with major contracts persistently going to rivals who were more ready to offer large amounts of cash.

The rot really set in in 1992 when BSkyB paid pounds 191.5m to screen 60 live Premiership football games a year over five years. That deal set the tone for a decline in BBC football that included the loss of rights over the FA cup to ITV and Sky. The corporation's top-level live football is now reduced to matches in the European Cup Winners' Cup and Uefa Cup, which do not even represent the highest level of European club football.

Two years ago, the loss of Formula One motor racing to ITV was another critical undermining of the BBC's dominant position, while rugby has also provided a tale of woe. The exclusive rights to the England rugby union team's home matches as well as rugby league Super League rights have both gone to BSkyB.

The BBC remains market leader in about 60 sports, but it is trailing in most of the biggest that have a national following and high prestige. "It is now about paying the market price for the big sports," said Brian Barwick, head of sports at ITV, and a former BBC employee. "The BBC has to decide how it is going to spend its considerable licence fee revenue."

This observation has others wondering where the BBC's priorities lie. Sport has not figured highly in the corporation's "promises" to the public, and while it is prepared to pay large sums for celebrities such as Vanessa Feltz and Jeremy Paxman, it seems ever more reluctant to compete effectively for sport. Where Test match cricket is concerned, say other bidders, the BBC had the money to win the contract, but chose not to spend it.

Given the size of the sums, pounds 103m in this case, each channel is having to revise its sports policies. ITV is focusing on specific events rather than overall coverage. BSkyB is, as Rupert Murdoch put it, using sport as a "battering ram" to sell subscription television.

The BBC's strategic vision becomes by the day less clear. It has recently lost its veteran head of sports, Jonathan Martin, who - despite the competition - managed to keep the Olympic Games until 2008, a respectable amount of next year's cricket World Cup, new contracts for the Open golf championship as well as the Grand National and Royal Ascot.

But the loss of other big sporting contracts has meant a significant breakdown in viewers' habits. In the old days, audiences would automatically turn to the BBC for any national sporting event. Now, according to Mr Barwick, they are "spreading their viewing across free-to-air and subscription channels to get a complete picture of what is going on ... viewers are becoming used to the fact that you look around the channels to find what you want".

The bitterness at BBC sports was clear yesterday, and came in the form of an attack on Channel 4. "We don't see how Test match cricket fits in with Channel 4's remit to be an alternative to the mainstream," said an insider - clearly nostalgic for the days when Channel 4 restricted itself to American football and the Indian tag game kabbadi.

Implications for sport,

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FA Cup


Home Test matches


England's Five Nations matches


Super League


Formula One


Ryder Cup


ITV and BSkyB Highlights on BBC

Channel 4 and BSkyB






The Football Association is paid pounds 130m in four-year deal that expires in 2001. BBC's contract ran out after 1997 FA Cup final

In contract worth pounds 103m, Channel 4 gets live rights to all home Test matches except one, which will be shown by BSkyB. Deal ends in 2002

BBC loses rights to show England home games in 1997 after BSkyB pays pounds 87.5m. BBC retains rights for all other matches. Deal expires in 2000

In April 1995, Rupert Murdoch creates rugby league Super League in pounds 77m deal, winning rights to show games on BSkyB

In 1996, BBC loses its rights to Formula One coverage to ITV in a deal worth pounds 15m a year. The ITV contract will expire in 2001

In 1995, BSkyB wins rights to Ryder Cup from the BBC, to go with its coverage of US Open and US PGA. BBC retains rights to the Open


More FA Cup games broadcast than ever before

BBC's commentary stalwarts could be out of work

Trouble, if you're an England fan without BSkyB

Becomes summer game to suit TV broadcast needs

Not a lot, because Murray Walker moves as well

Extended Ryder Cup coverage