Rowing: Boat Race to be switched to ITV

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BBC television's 66-year association with the Boat Race will cease after the transmission of this year's event on 28 March, after which the annual challenge between the crews of Oxford and Cambridge University will take up a five-year, all-singing, all-dancing contract with ITV.

According to the BBC, the decision to part company with a sporting contest it first broadcast on television in 1938 was taken "in the light of the organisers' desire to pursue a highly commercial agenda" for the race. "It became clear during negotiations that we were coming at the event from very different directions," a BBC spokeswoman said. "We just felt that as a public service broadcaster we had to draw the line."

The organisers, however, see the switch from television's Middlesex to Surrey station as a positive choice which they believe will boost the coverage and profile of an event which celebrates its 150th anniversary next month.

"The BBC statement this afternoon that they have dropped the event is not correct," said Duncan Clegg, who has played a crucial role in the event for the last 20 years as London representative of the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs. "We have preferred the ITV offer. I had the BBC on the phone to me at 2.0pm this afternoon pleading for them to stay."

Although Clegg praises the efforts that the BBC have put into promoting the event in recent years, particularly following the loss of several other of their key events to Sky TV or ITV, he says the new contract will offer the Boat Race "a higher profile than it has ever had before".

Innovations include a documentary about the rival crews which will go out separately before the race day, greater use of pre-race trailers and advertising posters and innovative race coverage including different camera positions and angles. It will be hosted by Gabby Logan and the Olympic fours gold medallist James Cracknell.

It seems likely that there will also be greater exposure for the sponsor who takes the Boat Race onwards. The current five-year contract of Aberdeen Asset Management also comes to an end on 28 March.

The Boat Race, rowed over a four-mile course on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake, has boasted a large domestic and international audience, with 7.7m viewers in the United Kingdom - the highest figure in recent years - watching last year's coverage.

The contest began in 1829 when two friends, Charles Merival, of Cambridge, and Charles Wordsworth (the nephew of the poet William Wordsworth), of Oxford, decided to hold a race between the universities.

The first commentary of the Boat Race was broadcast on BBC radio in 1927, and the first TV coverage was in 1938. The event prompted one of the more celebrated solecisms in radio commentary from the BBC's John Snagge, who observed at one crucial moment: "I don't know who's in the lead ... it's either Oxford or Cambridge."