Cricket, Football, Rugby Union,

Points of View

The trade-off between lucrative TV deals and the broad reach of free-to-air broadcasters has left rugby and cricket at a crossroads, says Mark Pougatch

The recent decision by the government to reject calls for the Six Nations Rugby Championship to be added to the list of ‘crown jewels’ has once again ignited the complex and very important debate about how – and where – elite sport is shown on television in the UK.

Category A list events must be shown live on free-to-air television. Chief among them are: the men’s and women’s football World Cups, the FA Cup final, the Grand National, the Derby, the men’s Rugby World Cup final (note, just the final), Wimbledon and the Olympics.

The men’s Six Nations is Category B, which means it can be shown on pay television provided there are highlights on a terrestrial station. Cricket was controversially relegated to the secondary list, hence why there’s barely been any free-to-air men’s Test cricket in this country since the memorable summer of 2005.

I’m aware this is a weighty start to any article, but it’s hugely important to recognise the ramifications of where top-class sport is shown. This isn’t a criticism of the editorial rigour of satellite TV; there are no quibbles at all from me on that score. I’m equally aware I have some skin in this game. I’ve spent more than 30 years in the sports broadcasting industry – first at BBC Radio and now at ITV – where any programme is freely available, but my main concern simply is access.

I want as many people as possible to be exposed to elite sport live. Highlights are good, but they’re a drive-through; I want people to be able sit down and enjoy the whole dinner.

I adore cricket because I grew up in it. My father was a cricket obsessive: he started his own club, he was the groundsman at the pitch in our village, my mum mowed the outfield, I painted the boundary lines and creases and ran the bar with him. He’d watch any cricket on the BBC, and had he lived to see the advent of Sky TV I would have bought him a subscription so he could watch as much cricket as he liked.

Sky covers cricket in the way the BBC never could with its range, its depth, the time it can devote to it, the excellence of analysis from its outstanding ex-players, its commitment to the women’s game and to all the myriad competitions – however controversial some may be.

Sky is a commercial enterprise and its job is to sell subscriptions and satisfy shareholders. It serves the cricket lover exceptionally, but that doesn’t alter the fact the game doesn’t get the ‘eyeballs’ it used to. It doesn’t reach the casual observer, the households who can’t afford satellite TV or those where cricket just isn’t a conversation – and they won’t be drawn in to the Test game because they can’t see it.

Compare a day at the men’s Ashes last summer with the memorable series of 2005, when it was last on Channel 4.

It is hugely important to recognise the ramifications of where top class sport is shown.

Sky’s audience peaked at 2.12 million on the final day of this year’s thrilling opening Test at Edgbaston; 8.4 million watched the nail-biting fourth Test denouement at Trent Bridge 18 years ago.

The England and Wales Cricket Board would argue that the deals struck with Sky were fundamental in keeping the game, and the counties in particular, solvent. They’d also point to the introduction of The Hundred and argue that some of those games are live on the BBC. That competition has been a huge success for the women’s game (the jury is seriously out on the men’s tournament) and is undoubtedly a gateway to some to our summer sport, but the horse is several furlongs down the track now and it’s hardly worth bolting the door.

My fiercely held belief is that the role of the administrator is to satisfy the financial needs while at the same time making sure there’s a viable sport for your grandchildren to enjoy in the future. There’s no point in being a well remunerated but niche game.

The cricket example, then, is a useful backdrop to what might happen next in men’s rugby union. The domestic game is excellently served by TNT and there’s an increasing presence on ITV as well. The recent figures for the World Cup are up there with anything on British television in the past 12 months (ie since the men’s football in Qatar): an 8.6 million peak for England v South Africa and a 7.7 million peak for the World Cup final itself. These are hefty figures in British television in 2023.

The Six Nations is a huge, traditional, cultural, annual sporting festival where every match is currently free to air. It doesn’t take much of a mental jump to realise how many people are enjoying England v Wales and Scotland v France who don’t watch any other rugby. Free to air keeps the game in the public eye, it keeps it relevant, it keeps it a water cooler conversation on a Monday morning at work, at a time when the sport needs every supporter it can muster.

Rugby is facing a massive issue at the moment with its concussion and protection protocols. To hide the showpiece event of the men’s calendar behind a paywall at this stage of its history – and in this climate – would be a hugely risky move. Money or legacy? As the PM often says in Parliament, “I refer you to the answer I gave some moments ago.” It’s beholden upon skilled administrators to ride both horses simultaneously.

Notice, I’ve barely mentioned football. That’s because it’s a behemoth which is so omnipresent, so popular that it can live in its own ecosystem and every men’s and women’s England match is free to air anyway. This is one conversation where, hallelujah, we don’t need to talk about the infernal VAR.

I’m not pretending these are easy decisions, but we’re living in the most competitive leisure marketplace of all time. Kids don’t even have to leave their rooms or screens for entertainment now. Keep your sport relevant; keep your sport seen.

Mark Pougatch presents ITV’s football & rugby coverage.

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