0 Is Sky the limit?

SkySportsCricketThe remit of our magazine/website is to highlight the skills of UK groundsmen and greenkeepers, to provide articles on the science involved in maintaining natural grass surfaces and generally to keep all involved in our industry abreast of current legislation, technological advances and the 'news of the moment'.

The remit of the groundsmen and greenkeepers who read this magazine is to provide safe, consistent surfaces for professionals and 'joe public' alike to pursue their chosen sport.

The remit of the governing bodies of each sport is to 'grow the game', or some such similar tag line. This involves interaction with schools, clubs, organisations and individuals across the UK, with the population further targeted on the obesity ticket.

It stands to reason then, does it not, that the more people are exposed to sport on television, the more their interest will be piqued? Witness the rise in the popularity of cycling following the London 2012 Olympics.

Which makes the R&A's decision to give exclusive rights to televise The Open live to Sky Sports, when golf is struggling to attract new, or even retain membership, somewhat baffling.

The Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) publish viewing figures for all UK TV channels - even though Sky remain reluctant to provide detailed information.

Remaining with The Open for the moment, viewing figures were 75% down in 2016 compared to the 2015 competition broadcast by the BBC. At their peak, 1.1 million watched in 2016, compared to 4.7m in 2015. The BBC 2 highlights programme, shown just two hours after the closing ceremony, attracted 1.5 million, so the hunger to watch it is still there.

Cricket is another sport that is finding it difficult to attract new players. Back in 2005, the last time Test cricket was shown on terrestrial television, 8.4 million watched the final day of the Ashes series on Channel 4. Compare that to the half a million that tuned in on the final day of the most recent Ashes series and it isn't hard to see where the problem lies.

The upsurge in participation experienced in 2005 and 2006 has now petered out to a trickle, by comparison. Recent figures suggest that just over a quarter of a million people now play cricket on a regular basis; down by one third on the 2006 figure.

According to the most recent viewing figures available from BARB, 43.08 million tune in daily. Of that figure, the lion's share (24.39m) watched BBC 1, 14m ITV 1 and 10m BBC 2. Channel 4 and Channel 5 are not far behind. Every other channel's viewing figures are, in the main, dire by comparison.

So, are Sky the problem? Is Sky to become the limit of televised sporting output in the not too distant future?

AndyMurrayGiven that 10.2m watched the Euro 2016 final on BBC - with a further 1.9m tuning in to ITV's coverage - plus an average 9.2m who saw Andy Murray triumph at Wimbledon - with viewing figures peaking at 13.2m - then it becomes clear that taking headline sport away from terrestrial television has a negative effect. Although, for the 16m who tuned in to watch England's humiliating defeat to Iceland, perhaps a move to satellite TV would be a welcome release!

So, is there a correlation between viewing figures and participation where mainstream sports are concerned?

There was a time, not so long ago, when Government stated that it would ensure that mainstream international sport was 'protected' on terrestrial TV. Whilst that might have been true for football (in the main), it certainly is not the case now with other sports. And the fall-off in participation in the past few years can only be put down to the takeover of Pay TV during that period.

That governmental commitment has now been rescinded, which leaves a largely sports loving nation no option but to join up to Sky Sports or the currently less successful BT Sport, or forego their enjoyment altogether.

Sky Sport pay the ECB £75 million a year for the rights to broadcast live cricket, from domestic through to international competitions. Their 'coverage' is first class in terms of content and innovation, whilst their documentary series are equally engaging. But, when circa half a million people are watching, what benefits to the sport in general do they provide?

One of the oft debated topics on their magazine programmes - such as Cricket Writers on TV or the Saturday Debate - or during breaks in play, is the demise of Test cricket. The 'blame' is usually attributed to the rise in popularity of Twenty20 cricket; introduced in the UK by the ECB in 2003.

Now, there is possibly some truth in that, but the game was invented to broaden the appeal of cricket - to attract the 'football supporter' it was oft said, and perhaps those with a shorter attention span? It has certainly achieved that, with attendances at grounds generally holding up strongly. The 25,000 plus that packed out Lord's recently for a T20 game between Middlesex and Surrey was an awesome spectacle, and even the smaller grounds regularly attract strong attendances; notably Chelmsford and Taunton.

Yet the viewing figures for T20 games shown live on Sky Sports are dreadful. If only 500,000 watch the showpiece finals day, how many are watching the live games in the qualifying rounds? Sky won't say, but you could hazard a guess that they are pretty poor.

So, T20 is to blame. Not Sky Sports minimal viewing figures then? Funnily enough, that possibility is never discussed by the Sky Sports commentators or pundits.

And it's about to get worse for cricket as BT Sport has won the contract to televise the next Ashes series down under in 2017/18!

TMS BBC

With BBC Radio 5 Live's iconic Test Match Special regularly attracting over four million listeners - and that doesn't include those who listen online - the appetite for cricket is clearly still there.

And it's not just confined to cricket - and excuse me for using it as the main example, but it's what I know best - as UEFA were 'disappointed' with the viewing figures for the Champions League following the move from ITV to BT Sport; the governing bodies of the home nations rugby were said to be collectively dismayed by the viewing figures for the overseas internationals; and the Football League (sorry, EFL) concerned by the drop in viewing of the highlights programme move from the BBC.

So, what is to be done? Clearly, the attraction of the Murdoch Moolah is too much to resist for the various governing bodies who have, effectively, 'sold their souls' to balance the books.

If the Government is serious about increasing participation in sport amongst the general public, then surely they must find a way of ensuring that more sport is shown on terrestrial television. The correlation between declining participation and reduced viewing figures is too powerful to ignore.

Somewhere, somehow, the money needs to be found to finance more sport on terrestrial television and, importantly, to ensure that what is currently available - Wimbledon, International Football, Olympics et al - is not lost to Pay TV forever.

Viewing figures for a host of UK TV channels may be found at http://www.barb.co.uk/viewing-data/weekly-viewing-summary/

This article is a personal viewpoint by Pitchcare's Peter Britton

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