Barney Francis, Managing Director, Sky Sports
In the last few weeks, debate around ‘free-to-air’ televised sport has moved back onto the agenda.
Television has an important part to play in sport and at Sky we take our role seriously. After all, the future health of sport is linked to our own success. Through investment in airtime, rights and promotion, our partnerships with sports bodies benefit fans, players and future talent alike.
I have respect for the governing bodies responsible for awarding broadcasting rights. They must strike a tricky balance between quality of coverage, income, promotional support, and exposure. As if that isn’t enough, they must also find a partner that is genuinely committed for the long term.
It is easy to forget how far television sport has come. In the month before Sky Sports began, just 27 hours of sport were shown on TV. Only half of an England football international was shown because of a clash with Neighbours. And Botham’s Ashes in 1981 was interrupted for kids’ TV shows.
Back then, sport was under-funded and under-valued. Surely no one would want to turn back the clock.
Nowadays, viewers have never been so well served. Sky Sports customers enjoy 5,000 hours of sport a month across seven channels. Coverage has improved too, as experts like Gary Neville, Nasser Hussain and Martin Brundle deliver insight aided by the latest technology. Elsewhere in the industry, the BBC and Channel 4 delivered the best ever coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Each broadcaster’s success is a stimulus to raise the bar again.
As well as airtime and promotion, television provides vital income. To date, Sky has invested more than £15 billion in sport, providing a much-needed injection of funding at all levels. For example, since Sky began covering football, over 30 English clubs have rebuilt or substantially improved their stadiums. Golf’s European Tour has seen prize money grow from €24.5m in 1992 to over €147m in 2015 and the ECB has invested record amounts into grassroots cricket. This is money well spent to the benefit of fans, viewers and participants alike.
There are some who argue that sport being broadcast on pay TV leads to declining public interest. There is no better example to disprove this theory than the Ryder Cup, which has grown to become one of the world’s biggest sporting events and yet has not been covered live on free-to-air TV for more than two decades.
When Jamie Donaldson secured the winning point at Gleneagles last September, it was the crowning moment of two weeks’ commitment from Sky Sports. Over 4 million viewers enjoyed a dedicated TV channel and over 5 million accessed our multi-platform coverage. We delivered huge exposure across digital and social media, plus a promotional campaign fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. It was Sky’s tenth Ryder Cup with all three days shown live as the final chapter to an 18-month story that we followed week in week out. And to think, before our first Ryder Cup in 1995, coverage suffered from regular interruptions and highlights weren’t shown until after midnight.
The debate around sport on television is an important one but often harks back to a bygone era. These days, pay TV is far from a niche product enjoyed by the few. Well over half the UK population subscribes to a pay TV service and Sky Sports is readily available in all those homes. It’s also far more affordable than some people might think. Sports fans can access all seven Sky Sports channels with a NOW TV day pass for as little as £6.99.
The media landscape has changed in other ways that open up new opportunities to engage with sport. Today’s fans and tomorrow’s sports stars follow and interact with their heroes on social media. They consume sport across tablets, mobile phones, online and in video clips, on various platforms including our own.
Of course, the question of young people’s participation in sport is one that we all take seriously. Our own Sky Sports Living for Sport initiative uses the power of sport, and the support of ambassadors like David Beckham, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jonny Wilkinson, to inspire young people and help them build life skills.
But the potential barriers to getting kids active are complex and multi-faceted, including access to facilities, the school curriculum and competition for leisure time. We’re fooling ourselves if we think free-to-air coverage is a panacea to such a broad social issue. On the contrary, reaching for a simplistic solution would not only fail to fix the problem, it would undermine the funding that is vital for a healthy and sustainable future for sport. Investment is what’s needed to nurture inspiration and see that it endures.
At Sky Sports, we’ll stay focused on delivering the best coverage whilst investing to help secure the future of sport.
Written for and published in The Daily Telegraph Sport on Thursday 29 January