Strange things are happening in televised sport. The top TV event of the weekend is the women’s FA Cup final, which will be broadcast live on BBC2. It promises to be a belter: Birmingham City take on Manchester City at Wembley, and if the traditional roar will have a higher pitch than usual, it will be no less fervent.
And the TV ratings will be hefty, too. It’s possible more people will watch the women’s final than the men’s Premier League coverage. The BBC’s best audience for a women’s match was 1.9 million for a Euro qualifier last year; the average audience for a Premier League match on Sky is 1.3 million. It’s a fact: many, many people like live sport – and they don’t all subscribe to the satellite channels.
As a result, we’re in the middle of an unexpected revolution. The free-to-air channels can’t outbid the satellite people, so if you want money, you sell your sport to Sky Sports or BT Sport. Like most live men’s football, like all live cricket, like Formula One after 2019.
But that leaves a sporting audience looking for sport. And it’s a rum thing: most people with a taste for the stuff find it easy to switch from one sport to another. After all, there’s common ground. The dramatic competitions of sport are enthralling and they come in many different forms. If you like one sport, it’s easy to like many. So these days the terrestrial channels, notably the BBC, put out a lot of sport they might not have covered when the BBC was the natural and inevitable home of all major events.
Highlights from the 2016 Women’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Arsenal
This has met with an unexpected response: what were once small-time events are now mainstream – while former mainstream events are now niche sports. Sports for the buffs. Women’s football has been on the rise since the 1990s, when football got respectable again after the anguished 1980s. Its growing popularity shows important and healthy changes in society, sure – but it also shows changes in the way sporting television works.
Saturday’s men’s Premier League matches – Manchester City v Leicester City, Stroke City v Arsenal – may or may not be showing on your television, but the women’s final certainly will be. It’s there, it’s live, it’s action, it’s on everybody’s screen and you don’t know what happens next. You switch on and you find yourself not switching off.
The same thing has happened in cycling and gymnastics. Both sports have been helped by British success at Olympic level. Sports in which the British were traditional no-hopers have become a big deal. International events produce strong British contenders, whose faces and idiosyncrasies we have come to revel in.
Both sports occupy a place in our culture that would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago. The roads are full of lycra-clad leisure cyclists; the shops are full of books about the mystique of the Tour de France, and track cycling is a TV staple. Gymnastics is also flying in terms of participation, and makes enthralling television.
The process works the other way, too. In 2005, cricket was massively popular as England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years. Then it went to Sky – and became a niche sport. A recent informal survey showed that more children recognised American wrestlers than then England captain Alastair Cook.
Unsurprisingly, the sport is desperate to get back on terrestrial TV. Premiership rugby has just managed to do exactly that: five live games per season will be shown on Channel 5. Meanwhile, women’s football is soaring and the FA Cup final is top of the bill.
Satellite TV sought a sporting monopoly and created a vacuum. Our appetite for sports has been filled in all kinds of unexpected ways.