ATHLETICS: BBC deal promises new-look coverage

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THE BBC yesterday confirmed a new five-year deal to cover domestic British athletics events - and hinted at changes in the presenting team.

Bob Shennan, BBC's Head of Sport, said the current personnel might well be supplemented. He will shortly be meeting the veteran commentator David Coleman to discuss future plans. Coleman, now 72, has a contract that runs up until April of next year.

The situation is still fluid after a whirlwind period of activity in which the corporation claimed the athletics coverage from Channel 4, who were half-way through a four-year agreement worth about pounds 1m a year signed with the now defunct British Athletic Federation.

Negotiations for the new BBC deal, believed to be worth at least pounds 3m a year, only got under way last Monday.

But among those contacted over the weekend by Mike Miller, the BBC's controller of television sport, was his former colleague Steve Cram, Channel 4's athletics commentator.

Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics 98, welcomed the new arrangement yesterday. "It is going to mean three times as much athletics coverage as before," he said, adding that a rights fee would greatly assist the sport as it worked to establish a new, long-term governing body.

The supporting coverage of live events established with such success by Channel 4 in the form of a weekend magazine programme will be carried on by the appearance of Athletics Focus, similar to Football Focus, to be screened in Grandstand during the summer.

Yesterday, BBC representatives shied away from any gung-ho statements about taking the athletics from Channel 4, which left many in the corporation devastated when it outbid them for the domestic cricket contract.

But the importance of being able to make a positive new signing in the wake of that setback was underlined both by the speed of recent negotiations and the presence at yesterday's announcement of the director of BBC Television, Alan Yentob.

"This is more than just a package of broadcasting rights," Yentob said. "It is a partnership which will enable athletics in this country to flourish."

The deal comes at a time when the domestic sport, led by Moorcroft, is already on a steep upward curve in terms of popular appeal.

This year's successes in the European Cup, Commonwealth Games and European Championships - that drew a peak BBC audience of 9.7 million, a figure only exceeded by the World Cup coverage - have made British athletics a far more attractive proposition than it was two or three years ago, when conflict over athletes' payments prompted ITV not to renew its domestic contract.

There were clear statements of intent yesterday that the BBC, which already had rights to athletics coverage featuring the Olympic Games through to 2008 and next year's world championships, hopes to buy up International Amateur Athletic Federation Golden League meetings next year.

These are likely to be on offer at a more realistic asking price following this summer's fiasco, when no terrestrial television companies broadcast them and coverage was restricted to cable and satellite TV.