The irresistible rise and rise of Sky's new world of sport

It's 20 years since the broadcaster transformed live coverage. Simon Turnbull goes behind the scenes of a rolling revolution

The 11.15am East Midlands train from St Pancras to Nottingham had been stuck at South Wigston for almost an hour and the Leicester Tigers fans who boarded at Market Harborough were getting distinctly jumpy about making it to Welford Road in time for the 3pm kick-off. "I don't suppose any of you can get Sky Sports 1?" a member of the fretful quartet occupying the table next to the buffet car enquired as his companions fiddled with their mobile phones.

This sporting life has come a long way since Sky Sports came into being, 20 years ago today. Prior to 20 April 1991, when the Murdoch empire started going about the business of giving a satellite makeover to British sport, you would be lucky to see just the one live rugby union club game a season while stuck in front of your television set at home. You might have got to watch the Pilkington Cup final at Twickenham. That, and what was then the Five Nations, would be your lot on the rugby union front.

Now you can see 100 matches a year on Sky Sports alone – the Premiership, the Heineken Cup, England's autumn internationals and tours, the Tri-Nations, the Super 15, women's internationals plus, every four years, every match on the British and Irish Lions' tour. You can watch on your mobile phone, on your laptop, in high definition and in 3D.

The true dimension of Sky's coverage was immediately evident when stepping into one of the giant trucks anchored in the car park behind the Crumbie Stand at Welford Road on Saturday (the "trackside equipment problem" at South Wigston having been sorted in the nick of time). It was like entering a world located somewhere between the New York Stock Exchange and Mission Control, Houston.

Jammed into one room was an army of technicians, all with headphones on and busily editing the images on the screens in front of them. In the production room next door were two rows of folk staring intently at a bank of 60 screens, showing an almost kaleidoscopic array of shots from around the ground – the crowd, paratroopers ready to descend from one of the stands, the tunnel area, the dressing rooms – plus all manner of graphics. This was the hub of the "2D truck". "No talking as they come out; let's hear the riff," the producer, Julian Maddock instructed, and on cue commentators Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes fell silent, so the strains of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" could be heard as the Tigers took the field.

In the truck next door was a similar scene – only the production staff were all wearing dark glasses. This was the 3D truck, with a different director, barking instructions at a different crew, different cameramen and a different commentary team, Mark Robson and Dewi Morris. In all, there was a crew of 170 covering the game for Sky. There were 22 high-definition cameras, six 3D cameras, 26 microphones and 15 miles of cabling running around the ground.

Back in 1991, you would have had the rugby correspondents from the Leicester Mercury and the Gloucestershire Echo attending the Courage League National One fixture between Leicester and Gloucester, plus maybe a handful of national newspaper reporters. That would have been the extent of the media coverage of a sport that, at club level at least, enjoyed no great mass public following.

"It was essentially an amateur sport with no television coverage," Martin Turner, Sky Sports' executive rugby union producer, reflected. "It was perceived in the widest sense as an elitist sport. That class distinction, I think, has all but gone. I went to the Rugby World Cup in 2003 as a fan and the people sitting around me were not what your average rugby fan would have been even 10 or 12 years previously.

"In the last 20 years the club game in rugby union has changed out of all recognition. The average crowd for a top division club game 15 years ago was about 4,000. Now the average is 13,000. Saracens put on a club game at Wembley and get 50,000. Harlequins do the same at Twickenham and they get 70,000. The Premiership final gets 80,000.

"It's an extraordinary rise."

The Sky Sports treatment has transformed the face of rugby union in Britain – on the back of the introduction of professionalism in 1995, in which the Murdoch media empire played an influential role. And its coverage of the sport is unquestionably of the highest order, the weekly Rugby Club being the best televised sports magazine show bar none.

Not that Sky happens to be everyone's satellite dish of tea, of course – nor, indeed, within the financial means of a good deal of folk. There have been the controversies over the years, too – the switch of the top-level rugby league club game from winter to summer sport, the sacking of Rodney Marsh for an offensive on-air comment which alluded to the South Asian tsunami, and more recently the enforced departures of Andy Gray and Richard Keys for sexist off-air remarks.

There are many for whom such things as the rolling 24-hour Sky Sports News channel and the surreality show that is Jeff Stelling's Soccer Saturday – a quartet of ex-players telling you what is happening on television screens you can't see – are the stuff of Kafkaesque nightmares.

Then there is the endless stream of live football, often dressed up in something approaching the kind of hyperbole David Mitchell parodied in his classic spoof trailer for a match between Portsmouth and Southampton: "A clash that's going to go down in history as one of the many football matches that are happening this weekend. Catch all of the constantly happening football here. Thousands and thousands of hours of football, each more climactic than the last."

On the latter score, and on the broader impact of Sky Sports, Andy Melvin, the company's deputy managing director and the man responsible for virtually reinventing the way football has been covered on television, points towards the live picture of the beautiful game pre-1991.

"There was not a lot of live sport on television and not a lot of live football," he said. "The broadcasters didn't spend a lot of money on sport and we had to duck around programmes like Coronation Street, Wogan, Dallas and News at Ten. Sport was told it had its place: when it was on and when it was off.

"I wouldn't have believed 20 years ago that I would be standing in a truck wearing sunglasses, watching football or rugby or golf in 3D. That tells you something about Sky and our attitude and determination. When Sky started I think it was losing £14m a week but the chief executive didn't cut the production budget; he increased it.

"He gave us more money to make our programmes better, even when this company was losing a fortune. And then when the Premier League came along [in 1992] Rupert Murdoch took all these chips, placed them on black and said, 'Right, spin the wheel'. It was the biggest gamble of his professional life, and the gamble has paid off.

"At Sky Sports we have a tremendous marriage of technological expertise and programme-making quality. And the most important marriage, I think, was Sky and football – Sky and the Premier League. It all seemed to come at the right time because football in the 1980s was going nowhere. We'd had all sorts of disasters – Hillsborough, Heysel, Bradford.

"People were losing interest in football and I think we came to each other's aid. Football – the Premier League, in particular – helped Sky to grow and Sky definitely helped football to grow. English football is now the most popular football in the world. Our coverage of the Premier League is screened in 125 countries. You see kids in the Far East and Africa wearing Man United and Chelsea shirts. Who would have believed that possible?"

And who would have believed, 20 years ago, that we would have live cricket that was uninterrupted by horse racing (as the 2005 Ashes were on Channel 4) or Play School (as the 1981 Ashes were on BBC)? Not only that, but live cricket with cameras in the stumps. And Stephen Fry commentating on darts alongside Sid Waddell, cracking up at the quick-fire quipping of the Geordie bard and declaring to the world, "I'm like a pig in Chardonnay."

Sky by numbers

40,000 The difference in the number of broadcast hours that Sky Sports screens now as opposed to when it started. In 1991, it broadcast 4,200 hours of sport – now it is more than 10 times that amount including 14,000 hours of HD coverage.

6,000 The number of live football games Sky has shown since 1991. Over 500 live matches will be broadcast this season – this month alone they are screening an average of two live football games every day.

400 The number of staff used when it is a Heineken Cup weekend.

£520m BSkyB's profits for the second half of last year, up 26 per cent. When Sky started it was making losses of £14m a week.

11,000 miles travelled by Sky's outside broadcast vehicles to cover cricket every summer. Each truck takes nine months to build and houses 78 screens to facilitate the broadcasting process.

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