Sport on Television: Beeb bows to Sky's aerial: Once satellite TV specialised in truck racing. Now it is buying up the major events. Rhys Williams reports

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The Independent Online
THERE was a time when BBC sport marked the seasons - the passing of summer into autumn with the arrival of Match of the Day, the bleak weeks of January and February through Five Nations rugby on Grandstand and the arrival of summer again with coverage of Wimbledon fortnight.

BBC sport was part of the country's cultural fabric, as important to the notion of public service broadcasting as current affairs or arts. But that is history. Egged on by a government keen to see a free market in broadcasting, satellite channels, and in particular Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, have now embarked on a spending spree to snap up exclusive rights to national sporting events: overseas Tests since 1990, Premiership football since 1992, the Ryder Cup next year.

Faced with an increasingly aggressive ITV, and unable to match Murdoch's millions, the BBC has apparently resigned itself to settling for shared coverage - usually with BSkyB. It has happened with football and rugby union, it happened with Test cricket last week, and it may be about to happen with Wimbledon tennis.

As a member of one of the sporting bodies that has negotiated with the BBC noted recently, 'The BBC knows it neither has the airtime nor the money to get the whole package and, with the advent of dedicated channels, sports increasingly want both.'

The approach suits the BBC, for the moment at least. The corporation privately accepts that it cannot compete with BSkyB financially, and is therefore concentrating on retaining at least a slice of the coverage it really cares about. It was prepared to stump up pounds 27m (nearly three times what it paid last time) to retain the Five Nations rugby championship - the mainstay of the ailing Grandstand - for three more years.

Similarly in cricket, all its effort went into retaining the live coverage of domestic Test matches and the NatWest Trophy. It did not even bid for the one-day internationals and Benson and Hedges Cup. The BBC was not, however, prepared to go the extra furlong to retain Cheltenham racing, wrested by Channel 4 for pounds 3m, a figure described by Jonathan Martin, the BBC's head of sport, as 'staggering'.

The pounds 3m four-year contract for perhaps the blue riband of the BBC's sporting calendar, Wimbledon fortnight, expired this summer and the outcome of ongoing negotiations for the next four-year agreement is expected in December. If the inflation the corporation was prepared to pay for the Five Nations is anything to go by, the BBC will go close to matching the pounds 10m that BSkyB is rumoured to have set aside.

Media analysts are predicting another shared arrangement, with the BBC retaining exclusive live coverage of the top matches and BSkyB picking up outside courts and delayed transmission of finals.

The debate surrounding television rights to sporting events is underpinned by a general antagonism towards BSkyB. Imagine the uproar last week had it been granted exclusive rights to cover Test matches live in the United Kingdom. Questions in in the House, a run on the pound. Part of it is tradition, but there is also a hint of snobbery.

A more serious concern lies in restricting mass participation sports like football and cricket to exclusive coverage on minority channels. Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, argues that allowing satellite channels to take major sporting events off terrestrial screens 'makes a nonsense of the Government's declared policy of extending choice.'

At one point some choice seem to be guaranteed by post-war legislation which laid down a schedule of major sporting events deemed too important to be broadcast on the ITV network, in those days a minority station. The restrictions were lifted as ITV became a national broadcaster, and modified by the 1990 Broadcasting Act. According to the act, eight events are now banned from exclusive coverage on pay-per-view television channels - of which there are none in Britain. Last month the National Heritage Select Committee recommended that the restrictions be extended to subscription channels such as Sky Sports.

This will undoubtedly be opposed by the Murdoch empire, for what is clear is that he sees sport as the key to getting a television network inside the home. His commitment was vividly shown at the start of the year when his Fox network paid dollars 1.6bn ( pounds 1.03bn) over four years for the pick of the NFL's American football games.

The controversy surrounding listed events suggests that BSkyB will have to be careful if it attempts to get exclusive rights to some of the nation's most treasured sporting events. The five- year Premier League deal caused uproar in both the sport and broadcasting. David Mellor, the former National Heritage Minister, has warned that poaching such dearly loved events as Wimbledon might be 'provocative'. Recently the station has moved more cautiously and it may be that for the moment shared coverage suits BSkyB just as much as it does the Beeb.

With a third full season of coverage just underway, Premiership football provides the clearest guide as to how satellite serves a sport - and indeed how sport serves a satellite station.

Football clubs have received much more money and exposure than than under the previous ITV deal, but television ratings are less than spectacular, with the live Sunday afternoon match averaging 811,000 viewers, with a high of 1.4 million. Italian football on Channel 4 regularly pulls in between 1.5 million and 2 million, while ITV's First Division coverage can attract around 6 million.

Tim Crabbe, national chair of the Football Supporters' Association, praises BSkyB's innovative coverage but worries about the privileged access. 'I don't think the national game should be restricted,' he said.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, is concerned that with pounds 80m in sponsorship money being shared among the top 22 clubs and pounds 20m among the remaining 70, the gap between the rich in the top flight and the lower divisions is getting wider. 'The FA has to be careful to remember that half the attendances and three-quarters of PFA members are outside the top division and that 65 per cent of Premier League players started out in the lower divisions. There is too much money at the peak of the pyramid while the base is eroding away.'

While many in sport welcome the Heritage committee's proposed tightening of the listing system, the Test and County Cricket Board is campaigning vigorously to have Test match cricket removed from the schedule of 'listed' events.

Terry Blake, who as the TCCB's marketing manager negotiated last week's deal, says that until BSkyB came along, there was no such thing as ball-by-ball coverage of overseas tests. 'Sky has been good for cricket. We should be able to negotiate with whoever we want, whenever we want,' he said. 'We don't like the Government putting us on a list which basically screws up our market position. We're aware that the game belongs to everyone, but if it's a question of survival, then it must be our responsibility. If you let the politicians run the game you end with a bugger's muddle.'

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