BSkyB wins support of promoters

Mike Rowbottom on a split developing between politicians and administra tors over the coverage of sport on television
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The Independent Online
Sporting administrators spoke out yesterday in defence of BSkyB television, whose hopes of buying up exclusive rights to top events are generating cross-party opposition in Parliament.

But, in a seminar on the future of sport and television yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, which was set up by BSkyB, the company's policy was criticised by a number of MPs. Labour has already announced it will back an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill in the House of Lords next month which is intended to ensure that key sporting occasions are safeguarded for the main terrestrial television channels.

Terry Blake, marketing manager for the Test and County Cricket Board, spoke of the benefits to the game of the pounds 60m deal it has signed with BSkyB, compared with 1989 television revenue of under pounds 1.5m.

"We have doubled our exposure from 300 to 600 hours while still maintaining 250 hours on BBC," he said. "We have a major investment programme underway, but we will not be able to fund it without this kind of money from television."

Mike Smith, of the Basketball League, Sam Hammam, chairman of Wimbledon, and Frank Warren, the boxing promoter, all added their voices of support for BSkyB. David Elstein, BSkyB's head of programming, said that of the 10,000 hours broadcast by Sky Sports last year, less than 0.5 per cent represented material transferred from ITV or BBC. He said his company had attracted three and a half million subscribing homes - equivalent to 10 million people.

David Dein, vice-chairman of Arsenal and a Premier League representative on the FA Council, questioned whether it was fitting for MPs to determine how sport sold its own television rights. "Do we really need the help of the politicians?" he asked. "Isn't their role that of a watchdog after sporting bodies have made their own decisions?"

But Michael Carttiss, Conservative MP for Great Yar- mouth, who first expressed his impatience at the proceedings - "We have sat here for the last one and a half hours and heard about nothing but money, money, money" - defended the role of politicians in determining television legislation.

"Please don't question our right to decide because unlike you, we have been elected to do this job," he said. "Sport will die if it isn't watched by the millions and we as politicians have to consider that."

Nick Hawkins, MP for Blackpool South and chairman of the Conservative back bench sports committee, said his postbag was full of letters from people seeking assurances that there would still be major sporting events which did not go exclusively to satellite channels.

"You should recognise the very strong views of these people," he said, "many of whom cannot afford Sky and some of whom face local restrictions over putting up satellite dishes."

Maurice Lindsay, the Rugby League's chief executive, urged MPs to proceed with caution. "Be careful, because you could damage the grass roots of sport by thinking that you are doing a public service," he said.

Lindsay pointed out that talented young players such as Denis Betts had left the British game because of poor rewards. "We couldn't afford to keep him," Lindsay said. "Our BBC contract was half a million a year and I couldn't do anything with it. I couldn't keep players, or invest in the junior game, or in schools development. Now I can."

But Nicholas Winterton, Conservative MP for Macclesfield and chairman of the all-party Parliamentary media committee, joined Carttiss in criticising the debate's preoccupation with money. "The culture of this country appears to have been overlooked," he said, adding: "I do not believe that monopolies are a good thing."