Brian Viner: Great sporting events are woven into our culture

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The Independent Online

Great sporting events are part of the fabric of our nation. Even those who loathe every aspect of sport would have to concede that the FA Cup final, Wimbledon, the Ashes and the Grand National are woven into our culture, and the accessibility or otherwise of such events on television is an emotive matter for millions of people.

That England's cricketers won the Ashes this summer without live, free-to-air television coverage, the series relegated on BBC1 to the odd mention in a news bulletin, is a disgrace. Brilliant though the Sky Sports coverage was, more people followed the 1953 Ashes, albeit largely on the radio, than were able to follow the 2009 version. That can't be right.

But sport these days is a multibillion-pound industry, and where there is money, there are also politics. At the next general election, the Murdoch press will be batting for the Conservative Party, and there has duly been concern at Sky, also part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, that Gordon Brown's government might try to wreak some kind of commercial revenge by stripping Sky of some of its exclusive rights.

A committee chaired by David Davies (a former BBC man, goes the chuntering at Sky's west London offices) today publishes its review of the great sporting events that are separated, somewhat arbitrarily, into an A list and a B list. Tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds depend on this review, as usual obliterating the needs of the humble viewer.

Without a doubt, that same viewer has been greatly served by Sky Sports, whether he or she is a subscriber or not. As part of the extraordinary breadth of sporting coverage offered by subscription television, there have been all kinds of technical innovations subsequently adopted by the free-to-air channels. Match of the Day is better for the existence of Sky, and the BBC in particular has been shaken out of a complacency that increasingly informed its coverage of sport. So three cheers for Sky. And the blazers at the England and Wales Cricket Board would raise a fourth cheer, because without Sky money, they would probably see themselves having to rattle tins on station concourses. But if need be, so be it. We cannot be a nation that agonises about child-obesity rates while also denying our children the opportunity to watch great sport on television.