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.

Michael Butler

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links