The divergent responses to the independent review panel's recommendations about televised sport show how fundamentally the whole sports broadcasting landscape has changed since paid-for television, and Sky in particular, came on to the scene. Whereas once there was the Great British Public that tuned in en masse to major sporting events and the BBC and ITV that divided the big occasions between them, there are now at least four separate parties with differing, even directly conflicting, interests.
There are still the viewers, more than three-quarters of whom insist that major events should be provided at no charge in addition to the BBC licence fee. And there is still the BBC, bigger than ever, that would like to air more major events than it currently does. But now there is Sky, which opposes any extension to the list of free-to-air events for its own commercial reasons, and – another new interest group – the sports governing bodies and clubs that have benefited from television fees and fear more austere times.
While hardly altruistic, Sky's contribution to British sport, including at the grass roots, is undeniable. It has transformed not only the way sport is viewed but also the money available for many sports. To free the market completely, however, would exclude many who pay their BBC licence in the expectation that major national events will be provided as part of the mix. So long as there is a licence fee, there will be events that should be protected as free-to-view.
In its specific recommendations, the review panel has probably got the balance about right. Allowing Sky to buy Ashes Tests was a mistake (though not the national catastrophe it was treated as in some quarters at the time). But public tastes and interests change. There was a time when the whole nation tuned in to watch Torvill and Dean. Now it is hard to object to the Winter Olympics losing its protected status.
Changes will not take effect for several years, by which time the political and broadcasting contexts could be very different. When the political decision is made, sports' interests should be considered, with those of TV companies and viewers. But individual sports cannot have a veto. Markets produce winners – and losers.