British sports fans face a tough decision in the months to come, although naturally it is a decision taken by their politicians as opposed to themselves, but it’s unlikely politicians will go as far as the public would want in this circumstance.
Last week, a review body reported back its conclusions on what sports should remain on free-to-air TV channels in the UK. The conclusion was that some events should be removed (does anyone really care about the Commonwealth Games enough for them to be on the BBC?), but others returns to free-to-air TV (i.e. the BBC or ITV).
The response, naturally, of the governing bodies of the sports listed to return to free-to-air TV was horror. All that nice money from Mr Sky Sports will be no more. Cricket, which generally is no longer on any of the free UK channels, cried foul particularly loudly. Perhaps they have a point. The home Ashes series (England plays Australia every 18 months alternating between playing in England and in Australia), which are scheduled to return to free-to-air, have been shown by Sky Sports the last two occasions they’ve taken place (2006 and 2009). By some statistical chance, it happens England have won both (with a 5-0 hammering in Australia squashed inbetween). Before that, it was the early 1980s before an England team had wrestled the Ashes back from the Aussies.
Cricket authorities say we’ll be back in the stone ages, with bad cricket, if the Ashes go back to free-to-air, and deny the authorities something in the region of £90m a year. So, are fans more keen to watch mediocre cricket for free, or pay to watch decent cricket? Sceptics will argue that fewer kids are playing cricket because they can’t watch it now like they used to be able to, hence it should be free to watch. But what’s the value in it being free, and (maybe) more popular, if there’s no money to affor the nets, pads etc. to help kids develop.
Tricky decisions to be made, and it’s almost certain no serious economic analysis will be brought to bear on the debate…