How Murdoch has changed the face of British sport

Has Sky's wall-to-wall coverage set new standards in coverage... or is the broadcaster taking sport downhill? Independent writers analyse the evidence

SKY'S SPORTING YEAR

Football 2,900 hours

Golf 2,100

Cricket 1,300

Rugby Union 650

Rugby League 600

Tennis 400

Ice hockey 380

Boxing* 375

Basketball 250

Horse racing 2,000

Sky's three sports channels broadcast a total of 16,000 hours of sport in the 1997 calendar year. This list of the 10 leading sports shows the total number of hours of transmission in 1997.

* Shared with Box Office

FOOTBALL

IN THE six years since Rupert Murdoch and English football joined forces through the creation of the Premier League and the television deal struck with BSkyB, the game in this country has been transformed by its new-found wealth. Clubs can afford top foreign players and their astronomical wages, while the continental exodus of the best of British talent has all but dried up.

Overseas stars were by no means new to English football, but the signing of Dennis Bergkamp by Arsenal and Ruud Gullit by Chelsea led to importing on an unprecedented scale. Now it is rare for any Premier League club not to have foreign players, and in Chelsea's case it would be no surprise if they fielded a team without one English-qualified player at some stage this season. While the fans are revelling in it, the consequences for the national team are yet to be fully appreciated.

Foreign managers like Gullit, now at Newcastle, and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal are also becoming common-place, bringing fresh ideas, dietary programmes and training methods that in many cases have already led to a new lease of life for players approaching their mid-thirties.

Although much of the money has gone on luring internationals like Fabrizio Ravanelli, reportedly paid pounds 40,000 per week during his one-year stay at Middlesbrough, some has also filtered through to the stadiums which has improved the level of spectator enjoyment and justified, to some extent, the rising cost of attending Premiership football. Furthermore it could be argued that the promotion of the game in the media has never been better. Attendance figures are on the up, but not even Murdoch would claim all the credit.

However, there is a downside. Many fans are unhappy about the constant re-scheduling of games to suit the demands of live television, with matches on Monday and Friday evenings, Sunday afternoons and even Saturday mornings. In addition, the Sky money is widening divisions in the game.

"It's a very traditional game and sometimes change doesn't come that easily," Brendan Batson, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said. "We can't turn the clock back, but tradition is a very important part of our national game and the traditional thinking is that games are played on a Saturday afternoon at three o'clock. With the amount of investment from television companies you expect them to have a say in the way the game is run, but we have to make sure the balance doesn't get too one-sided in favour of the TV companies."

Sky has worked hard on presentation to satisfy the armchair supporter by including in its innovative coverage varied camera angles and intricate replay techniques that provide their audience with views that are not available to most in the stadium. The effervescent former Scotland international Andy Gray has become a cult figure through his operation of video replay machines that allow him, as the main studio analyst, to dissect the game and develop points in a way that was not possible before.

Thanks to Sky's financial input smaller clubs in the Nationwide League are undoubtedly better off than they were, but the gap between them and their Premiership counterparts is growing all the time. Even within the Premiership there are clear divisions; a look at which clubs have actually won the Premiership shows how important money is becoming. Variety, one of British football's greatest assets, is in obvious danger.

RUGBY LEAGUE

NO SPORT has been crash-tackled by Rupert Murdoch quite like rugby league. In April 1985, against the background of News Corporation's attempts to hijack the game and its lucrative TV rights in Australia, the Rugby Football League in Britain accepted an offer of pounds 87m from BSkyB for a new five-year television deal.

It was an unheard of sum of money for a sport accustomed to counting its pennies, even if it squandered its pounds, but this was no ordinary TV contract. It involved breaking the habits of 100 years by switching to a summer season - although advocates of that change insisted that it would happen anyway.

Since the deal was designed to isolate the Australian Rugby League, it specified that Great Britain could play only Super League opposition at international level. Most controversially of all, in its original form it involved existing clubs merging to form new entities to play alongside London, Paris and Toulouse in a European Super League.

Club chairman voted for that radical plan in order to get their hands on the pounds 87m, but they could not deliver their side of the bargain. Mergers were howled down by opposition within the game, but London and Paris were included in the competition when it kicked off for its first summer season in 1996.

Producing a national - indeed a trans-national - competition was part of the deal with Sky. Again, the game has been unable to deliver. Paris went to the wall after two years of mismanagement and French farce; London soldier on with considerable success on the field, but little impact off it; Gateshead will be the only new club, when they join Super League next season.

Overall, the legacy of Murdoch and his millions has been mixed. It is hard to imagine the game now without his monthly cheques, even if much of the money has gone in players' "loyalty" bonuses and inflated wages.

Some clubs, like the Bradford Bulls, have seized the opportunity and thrived under the new regime. Others are still adapting, whilst bitterness still lingers amongst some of the clubs excluded.

The game's international programme has been shot to pieces, without that breaking the ARL. They and Super League have reached an uneasy compromise, under which Test rugby will hopefully be restored to its old status.

Peace, of a sort, in Australia carried dangers, though, in a country which was merely a pawn in a bigger game. It was with relief that the sport here was able to announce a three-year extension to the Sky deal this summer, albeit at a lower sum per season.

The game has suffered through a shortage of terrestrial coverage, although that could be addressed by a highlights package on BBC next year.

Dave Hadfield

RUGBY UNION

THE EFFECT of the Dirty Digger's rugby revolution in the British Isles has been profound. BSkyB has not merely turned over the topsoil of the sport, but rearranged its foundations.

A little over three years ago Murdoch cemented a 10-year deal in Johannesburg worth US$550m (pounds 345m) with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was small beer compared with the $1.5bn he shelled out for his NFL broadcasting rights, but it was more than enough to crack the union code wide open.

The cathartic result was the collapse of "shamateurism", but it was replaced by a merciless brand of market-force professionalism. England may be big and strong enough to play commercial hardball but Wales, Scotland and Ireland are on their knees and sinking fast.

Within a year of the Jo'burg accord, Murdoch had successfully tempted England's Rugby Football Union with an pounds 87.5m carrot. It gave him exclusive rights to every Twickenham international. The message was clear: England, with their six million plus viewers, were the priority on the rugby shopping list, with the poor old Celts down among the shampoo and loo paper.

The question with which the unions have been wrestling concerns their ability to "grow" a fledgling professional sport without the help of terrestrial television. They are beginning to realise that they cannot.

Chris Hewett

CRICKET

SKY SPORTS has demonstrated the ability to reach those parts of cricket around the world that other broadcasters either cannot - or cannot be bothered to - reach.

The sum of pounds 60m was paid to the then Test and County Cricket Board at the start of a four-year deal, split approximately pounds 35m-pounds 25m between the BBC and Sky. BBC secured the live rights for the Tests, NatWest Trophy and some Sunday League cricket.

Sky gave viewers something which was never a part of the BBC remit: bringing summer to the northern hemisphere winter and screening more domestic competitions. Until the winter of 1990 England's overseas tours had been a visual mystery to the fans stuck in a cold climate. BSkyB changed all that and this year will be covering a third Ashes tour.

To date, Murdoch's men have put the County Championship on the schedule and broadcast women's cricket, with coverage of the Ashes series. There has also been extensive airtime given to the Benson and Hedges Cup, Sunday League cricket and a regular magazine programme, The Pavilion End.

Its innovative camera angles and other technical and technological refinements have all helped to make the game, one-day or first-class, more interesting to the watch. The net result is a raising of the game's profile and a solid financial footing for the base of the pyramid.

David Llewellyn

BOXING

THE IMPACT of satellite television, and particularly of Sky Sports, on British boxing depends entirely on which side of the fence an interested party sits. Those involved with the promoter Frank Warren, who has an exclusive deal with Sky, are sitting pretty. Apart from the odd crumb, all the others are out in the cold.

Satellite TV, while filling some coffers in the short term, marginalises boxing and causes concern for the future of the sport. When Naseem Hamed, British boxing's biggest star, fought on ITV, he was watched by upwards of 10m viewers. His appearances on Sky pay-per-view have seen that drop below one million.

Sky's "poaching" of fighters who built their careers on ITV has played a large part in the terrestrial network's withdrawal from boxing over the last four years. And it is conspicuous that Sky have been unable to build fighters and make them into household names in the manner that ITV and BBC were able to do.

When Warren took his stable to Sky, he reasoned that only a dedicated sports channel had the time and resources to develop the stars of tomorrow. The biggest stars in British boxing over the last decade - Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Lennox Lewis and Hamed - all came to prominence on terrestrial TV. The void resulting from its withdrawal is one that boxing will live with for years to come.

Glyn Leach

ICE HOCKEY

ICE HOCKEY in Britain has changed dramatically over the past three years and Rupert Murdoch's involvement is illustrative of how his long- term strategy influences where he chooses to invest.

Sky had a deal with the ice hockey Premier League before it became the Superleague two years ago and was in a good position to secure the rights again - for a sport growing in popularity - when they came up for renegotiation recently. Sky signed a two-year deal to screen the sport (worth around pounds 1m per year to the Superleague) and an option for a third year.

The investment is tiny when compared with the pounds 670m four-year deal Sky has with the football's Premier League, but potentially of immense value should demand for British ice hockey increase internationally.

Sky has an ice hockey night on Thursday and it also broadcasts the Benson and Hedges Cup from the quarter-final stages onwards.

"Many people think of it as a small sport," a Superleague spokesman said, while pointing out that attendances of 17,000 and 10,000 in Manchester and Sheffield are larger than many First Division football crowds.

"As and when our product is in demand internationally [NHL hockey from the US and Canada currently dominate] we'll be looking to sell that product around the world."

Sky's investment will not guarantee it secures those rights, but it will put them in the best position to negotiate if and when it happens.

Nick Harris

MIKE SMITH, the Budweiser League chief executive, is adamant. "Sky's involvement with basketball has been nothing but beneficial," said Smith, who this week signs a new deal with the satellite channel which will be worth pounds 1m to the sport over the next three years.

This is the second three-year agreement between the league and Sky, who will show 30 games this season in a two-hour Sunday evening slot, in addition to the DairyLea Dunkers all-star game, the uni-ball League Trophy Final and the Budweiser play-off championships.

"Sky give us a high-quality outlet enabling us to prove that where we have regular coverage we can stand up against other sports,"Smith said.

"Audiences vary between 40,000 and 150,000, which Sky are obviously happy with or they wouldn't be improving our deal. Our figures are 3-1 above audiences for ice hockey, for example, and we have bigger audiences than NBA basketball."

Smith added: "Before Sky came along our only outlet was provided by occasional games, the major finals, on terrestrial TV."

Sky has also developed personalities by using coaches and players as commentators on its programme, fronted by Suzanne Dando.

"They have steered away from outside presenters and that has improved their credibility within the sport," Smith said. "By contrast the BBC's credibility in particular has declined with its often stilted and dated presentation."

Richard Taylor

THE INFLUENCE of Rupert Murdoch on British tennis is still in its infancy, but not through lack of desire. The Holy Grail of the sport here is Wimbledon, which is still a listed event and thus the BBC have the exclusive broadcasting rights.

The listed status is reviewed periodically, however, and it is understood Sky is lobbying for a change so it could bid for the rights to the whole tournament except for the men's final. "The men's final is, and will always remain, listed," an LTA spokesman said.

At the moment Sky's only exclusive tennis deal in Britain is to cover the Nottingham Open, a relatively low-key event but a foot in the door nonetheless. "It's advantageous for ourselves and British tennis to have the Nottingham Open on Sky," an LTA sponsorship spokesman said. He declined to say how much the deal was worth and said he was not in a position to say whether a bid from Sky to screen Wimbledon would be well received by the LTA and the All England Club, which runs Wimbledon and negotiates the sale of television rights. "It depends on whether we want [Wimbledon] retained on terrestrial TV or to explore other broadcasting opportunities," he said.

Sky broadcasts other major international tennis events (the US Open, the Davis Cup, the Federation Cup, the Compaq Grand Slam in Munich), but in Europe the main player is Eurosport, which has a TV deal with the ATP to screen around 50 major tournaments per year.

Nick Harris

IF THE Winning Post is not necessarily the most appropriate title for Sky's no-frills coverage of largely second-rate racing fixtures, calling it Stuck in the Stalls would be a disservice too.

For the racing fanatic who has not been sated by the extensive transmission of the sport by the BBC and, in particular, Channel 4, Sky fills in the gaps, principally by covering evening fixtures and some Saturday meetings that are not on terrestrial TV.

The station has made a narrow inroad into coverage of the better meetings, taking over from Channel 4 at Newcastle and thus denying non-subscribers the chance to view one of the Flat season's biggest handicaps, the Northumberland Plate, and a significant Grand National trial, the Eider Chase.

The latter is sponsored by the Tote, who are in a prime position to assess Sky's effect on racing. "Coverage by Sky had a negative impact on betting compared with terrestrial TV because of their lower customer base," Rob Hartnett, the organisation's spokesman, said. "Betting turnover on the Northumberland Plate and the Eider Chase declined appreciably since the switch from Channel 4."

Sky has not had the opportunity, or the need, to tamper with the sport and there have been no fixture changes to accommodate the station's schedules. Better still, Jeff Stelling's presentation of The Winning Post is high on action and low on talking heads, a refreshing alternative to the verbosity of terrestrial coverage.

John Cobb

BASKETBALL

TENNIS

HORSE RACING

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