Satellite has established new horizons

Liz Searl examines the impact that Sky's approach has had on sport itself and television coverage of it
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The Independent Online
When someone tells you that Sky TV use sport as "a licence to print money", you can hardly expect him to sing their praises in his next breath. But Alex Fynn, a sports consultant and one of the thinkers behind the Football Association's Blueprint for Football, does just that.

"Sky believe that sport is money and they are in the business of profit," he said. "They are also in the business of presenting sport in the best possible way they can - by presenting it better they get more money, and you can't do that with the GM Vauxhall Conference."

Sky's increasing influence in sport has been highlighted this week by two major developments. The deal with Frank Warren leaves the satellite channel as almost unchallenged market leaders in boxing, while the moves by Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd to establish rugby league super leagues in two hemispheres will change dramatically the whole face of the sport.

Although Sky's increasing influence in sport is resented by many - particularly those sports lovers without satellite dishes or those who resent paying their Sky subscriptions - there is general agreement that it has helped both to raise sport's profile and to improve television techniques.

"Sky forced a response from other parts of the media, and as a result of that football has been elevated from back-page sport to a front-page news item," Fynn said.

"The way it is covered by the media has now totally changed. Without Sky you wouldn't have any of the sporting pull-out sections you have now. In that sense Sky have been a benefit to the game. Football was the No 1 sport before Sky was around. Sky then made it Britain's number two, three, four and five sport.

"The way they cover sport has improved production standards immensely across the board. Because of the nature of their channel they have more commitment than anyone else."

Sport has clearly been a major factor in Sky's campaign to sell satellite dishes. This has been evident since the station's early days, when Frank Bruno's world heavyweight title fight against Mike Tyson and an England cricket tour of the West Indies helped Sky to get a crucial foothold in the market.

Critics of Sky object to the way in which the public has been forced to pay to watch events which were previously offered as part of the service from terrestial television. In particular, there is a widely held view that it is wrong to restrict mass participation sports like football and cricket to exclusive coverage on minority channels.

However, the benefits to the sports concerned are clear. The deal giving Sky live coverage of Premiership football is worth £304m over five years and the added advantage to the game is that it does not appear to have had any effect on attendances as Sky is watched by only a limited audience.

Sky also insists its arrival as a major player on the television stage has been of benefit to all levels of sport. A spokesman said yesterday: "Everybody likes the marquee events: world title fights, football - that's what makes the headlines. But we work ever so hard at other levels, too. We cover schools' football and no one else does, we cover the women's FA Cup. . . In cricket the junior World Cup is happening next year because we agreed to cover the semi-finals and the organisers could then find a sponsor.

"One of the growth sports in the UK seems to be ice hockey and we have just gone in with a three-year deal for domestic ice hockey. In one respect it's business because we think it's getting popular, but no one else is giving them much support."