When will sport on subscription TV reach a breaking point?
Less and less sport is shown free-to-air nowadays. This needs to be changed
A view of Sky Sports covering the GAA. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Sentiment is no easy fit on a balance sheet. It’s too airy-fairy for stark profit and loss, even in sport which is nothing without it. You do have to be able to afford your sentiment. But how long will it take for sports to twig that hiding action behind Pay TV is ultimately too expensive an exercise.
Of course it isn’t in the short term. Nor is any organisation currently out of pocket from profitably slaloming its way through the picture rights jungle. In fact for many major sports the pact of more money for less exposure continues to be a financial beano.
However some signs are starting to emerge of acknowledgement that longer-term self-interest relies on expanding the numbers of viewers actually prepared to give a damn about who wins or loses.
There’s no more ruthlessly bottom-line sport than Formula One. Sky bought exclusive rights to live pictures in 2019 following the end of a shared agreement it had with free to air stations this year. On the face of things it looks a commercial win-win for both the broadcaster and the sport.
Despite that a deal has been struck to allow Channel 4 show next summer’s British Grand Prix live as well as broadcast a highlights show throughout the season. Similar moves are being made in other major F1 markets.
Behind the corporate jargon it’s acknowledgement of how vital free-to-air coverage continues to be in generating audience interest.
Brands expand by increasing the numbers consuming them. Any deal swapping exposure for cash by definition lessens those numbers. Exclusivity suits broadcasters. But what long-term cost is there for sports whose futures rely on cultivating the next generation of players, fans and consumers.
Recognition of the need to invest in such woolly concepts as goodwill and sentiment looks to be behind English cricket’s determination to return some top-flight international coverage to free-to-air as well.
Over the last decade the game’s organisation has thrived financially. Except greater wealth appears to have come at a cost of greater irrelevance. English cricket has enjoyed a halcyon decade, made lots of money, and some of its greatest stars can walk down the street in no danger of recognition.
It’s still a stark statistic how viewing figures for that historic 2005 Ashes series peaked at 8.4 million on free-to-air. Two years later Sky Sports exclusively had the Ashes to itself and didn’t draw more than half a million.
Plenty will argue that quality and sustained coverage for devoted fans prepared to pay through the nose is simply the way of the world. And inevitably Premier League football gets referenced as proof of how subscription coverage can transform a sport.
But soccer is singular in its public reach. Others sports have a major self-interest in widening their public reach, not restricting it. And old-school as it is, free-to-air coverage remains a vital component of such self interest, something that surely must be factored more into long-term strategic planning.
The pace of change is such that television pay-walls are apparently already old hat. There are predictions of accelerating decline as the model which saw companies splash out colossal money to hook customers starts to look dated in the face of a supposed tech-firm streaming future.
But either way there are consequences if most people can’t see it or can’t get it: of worse, if they don’t get it because they simply don’t care. Because it’s hard to care or engage with something you can’t, or won’t, pay to watch.
Failure to take the biggest possible audience into account is a strategic own goal in any business. But sporting organisations continue making bottom line calculations about coverage that ignore how short-term pay offs risk longer-term irrelevance.
It’s as if bodies charged with maintaining an overall perspective on the future wellbeing of their sports get consumed by the picture rights game, losing effective control of their own destiny in return for telly money.
That’s what seems to have happened with racing a couple of years ago when racecourses here and the industry’s ruling body, Horse Racing Ireland, signed a deal with Satellite Information Services which gave SIS control of the sport’s media rights.
The implications of that move, apparently worth about €35 million a year, became clear in February. SIS decided to switch TV coverage from ‘At The Races’ to ‘Racing UK’ and there was nothing the sport here could do about it, even if they wanted to.
Having been the bulwark of ATR’s coverage, available on a standard digital package, from January 1st Irish racing’s day-to-day coverage for stay at home viewers will be behind a pay-wall on a channel owned by most of the tracks in Britain.
HRI’s response to fears that Irish racing will wind up taking second place in both exposure and priority under the new arrangement echoes that of many other governing bodies over the years, the argument being that revenue gains ultimately benefit their sports, grassroots and all.
But cultivating grassroots, especially younger fans, depends on action being on their radar in the first place. Sporting heroes, no matter what the code, need to be seen. Too often these days they’re hidden behind pay-walls.
There are always ways around walls of course. The modern equivalent of the ‘dodgy box’ is illegal streaming. And it’s such a technical free-for-all these days it feels almost twee to point out how such behaviour actually breaks the law.
But much more straightforward surely is to point out how restricting audiences might pay off now but can ultimately be self-defeating in terms of overall public exposure.
Dividing coverage on a more shared basis between free to air and subscription models might mean organisations taking a short term financial hit. But a more free to air future is surely worth examining in the context of it being an investment in future sentiment.