The advent of digital technology and the increasing dominance of commercial channels has stripped the BBC of its monopoly on sports coverage. With a summer of high-profile competitions upon us, the BBC have to up their game or risk losing out.
With Auntie gleefully clinging to (partial) broadcasting rights to all of the above, an outsider might conclude that the Beeb has a stranglehold on its coverage of our national pastimes. Look a little closer, however, and BBC Sport is not in as rude a health as it may seem. In fact, it has been facing a steady demise for nearly a generation.
Perhaps the best marker for this slow decline was the axing of flagship Saturday afternoon sport-athon Grandstand in 2007. On the eve of its fiftieth anniversary, the staple of weekend sports coverage, running from Football Focus at midday to Final Score in the early evening, finally succumbed to the pressures of the digital age and the pub-friendly round-the-clock musings of Sky Sports News.
If we are being honest, Grandstand’s time had come: it was a throwback to the age of Ceefax, the Vidiprinter and sitting with your ear to the radio with bated breath as a goal had been announced at White Hart Lane or Ewood Park. With specialist news at the click of a button, there was simply no call to sit through three hours of snooker coverage in order to hear test match updates.
It was not all that long ago that cricket fans could watch home test matches on the BBC, a privilege they had enjoyed since the first live broadcast in 1938. But when Channel 4 and Sky stepped in with a massive £103 million bid in 1998, the Beeb’s reign of inoffensive murmurings came to a sudden halt, and Jonathan Agnew and co. were consigned to discussing cakes from the Test Match Special radio commentary box. As any cricket aficionado will attest, the results were nothing short of revolutionary. In came snickometer, hawk-eye, young intelligent commentators and a sense of fun and excitement that had seemed to haemorrhage from the game throughout the 1990s. Cricket coverage was the multicultural, vibrant spectacle that it had to be in the twenty-first century, and the new guard saw their high-point with the 2005 Ashes series on Channel 4 attracting an unprecedented 8.4 million viewers during the fourth test. Since then, Sky have picked up where Channel 4 left off, gradually perfecting the formula of intelligent commentary, cutting-edge technology and the sense of fun and adventure that their predecessors pioneered - albeit at the price of a hefty subscription fee.
The fates of BBC cricket and Grandstand speak directly to BBC Sport’s failings and suggest what it needs to do in the future. BBC Sport cannot afford to rest on its laurels, smugly assuming that, as the national broadcaster, it should have unquestioned access to the national games. Quite simply, the Beeb needs to learn to compete: to constantly seek to revolutionise its sport coverage, to challenge the expertise and specialism of the Murdoch empire, and to convince an increasingly sceptical audience that major sporting events are not deserving of the staid, insipid coverage of a Diamond Jubilee. Of course, in a month in which Sky Sports and BT successfully struck a £3 billion deal for Premier League coverage, a deal which works out at a cool £6.6 million per live game, the prospect of a publicly funded broadcaster providing adequate competition is not an easy one to entertain.
But this is not to say the Beeb can’t beef up what they already have: Match of the Day, with its cast of grumpy middle-aged pundits and pleasant blandness of Gary Lineker, has all the hallmarks of the final days of Grandstand or an afternoon’s snore-cast of TMS, while each year the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage seems less and less about tennis and more about strawberries, cream and hubristic twattery.The Olympics are set to be a benchmark in this respect. With over 2500 hours of coverage lined up across 24 different platforms for the home broadcaster, the Beeb is at make or break time. The bargain basement £60 million deal they struck for London is a lucky anomaly. Last week the Telegraph reported that the BBC will face a “free for all bidding war” for the games in Rio de Janeiro in four years time: how they cope in their own back yard could set an almighty the precedent for the life or death of BBC sport as we know it.