Sky Sports managing director: “the debate around sport on TV often harks back to a bygone era”

These days, pay TV is far from a niche product enjoyed by the few," says Barney Francis following Virgin Media's call to delay the auction for Premier League rights

Football, Six Nations rugby and The Open golf are all becoming part of a desperate bidding war for TV rights, but Sky Sports Managing Director Barney Francis has argued that no one would want to go back to a time before pay TV.

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The man responsible for Sky Sports’ six subscription sports channels said that the debate about sport on television, while important, “harks back to a bygone era”, and that pay TV has not led to a decline in public interest in sport. 

“It is easy to forget how far television sport has come,” Francis wrote in a blog post. “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.”

The BBC’s live golf coverage of The Open is reportedly under threat as Sky Sports seeks a new broadcast deal. 

Managers of rugby’s Six Nations championship, meanwhile, have hinted that they could be willing to seek a new deal with pay TV, with its chief executive John Freeman telling the Daily Telegraph, “The reality is that this is an extremely important revenue stream and broadcasting is an extremely important element of that revenue. So I don’t think it is good enough just to say we wouldn’t consider every option.”

A new TV deal for Premier League football is also currently being negotiated. Sky’s rival Virgin Media are attempting to delay the new contract until after an Ofcom investigation into the cost of watching football on TV has been completed.

Virgin Media claim that British football fans are charged too much to watch Premier League football live on TV, and want the Ofcom investigation to be given time to investigate its complaint. “Failure to do so will leave fans, who already pay the most to see the least amount of football in Europe, facing yet another big rise in the cost of watching live football on TV,” a Virgin Media statement said.

However, Sky Sport’s Managing Director argued that its service offered value for money.

“The debate around sport on television is an important one but often harks back to a bygone era,” Francis said. “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.”

He also said that having less coverage on terrestrial television had not led to a downturn in enthusiasm for watching sport: “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.”

Some figures in the game, however, have suggested that Rory McIlroy’s failure to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year points to a decline in general interest in golf. 

Professional golfer Lee Westwood said in January that he hoped the Open would remain free to air, saying, “Yes, the true golf fans would always find a way to watch the Open. But what I’d be very concerned about is that with the participation levels falling, it certainly wouldn’t encourage people who would not ordinarily take up the game to have a go.”

Francis wrote that governing bodies had to strike a “tricky balance” when negotiating broadcast rights: “I have respect for the governing bodies responsible for awarding broadcasting rights,” he said. “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.”

The TV rights up for grabs

Live golf coverage of The Open could move from BBC to Sky

Premier League eager to push on with TV rights sale despite opposition from Virgin Media: “A self-serving media release from Virgin Media should have no bearing on the sale of the Premier League’s rights,” a statement read.

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Six Nations chief executive would consider pay TV deal for the rugby championship: “The championship has never been healthier, it is in great shape and our terrestrial broadcasters have been fantastic partners. But that being said, they, like anybody else, have to be kept honest,” John Feehan said.