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TV Rights Pose a Threat to Affordable Home Spectatorship

With it becoming more difficult and expensive than ever to watch sport, the pandemic has exposed a key issue with sports broadcasting.

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Image Credit: Richard Matthews

The Covid-19 pandemic has had very visible effects on sport fans, with empty stadiums and fake crowd noise becoming the ‘new normal’ for spectators. But for me, and I’m sure numerous other fans, this has revealed to a greater extent just how difficult it is to watch the sports we love.

The last two weekends have been somewhat of an anomaly, with the main sporting events (outside of football) all being shown on free-to-air TV. Namely the Six Nations were on ITV and BBC, the Super Bowl was covered on BBC and England’s whole four-match cricket test series in India were picked up by Channel 4. However, this has not been typical for sporting fans throughout lockdown and for the last few decades.

I saw a brilliant tweet which stated how “there will be people out there whose last two experiences of watching live cricket have been the World Cup final super over and [Dom] Sibley plodding his way to a 160 ball 50 in front of an empty ground in Chennai”. This of course exposes the way Sky has had complete control over broadcasting English cricket for the last 16 years.

Its return was greatly appreciated but there were numerous complaints around the quality of analysis, and lack of social media presence, both of which are often top-tier when carried out by Sky. Ultimately this test series will not be a turning point in the broadcasting of cricket as Sky’s excellent coverage, but also influence on the grassroots level of the game, has solidified their hold over the rights.

Throughout the first lockdown, all I was looking forward to was any kind of sport being back on TV. The Bundesliga and NRL were the first two leagues I wanted to watch when they restarted, the former being on BT and the latter on Sky Sports. Being the dominant broadcasters in the UK, their respective channels have become a necessity for every fan. Which for some has been a blessing, given that this meant more games than ever being shown on TV, combined with more time at home. For football fans especially it is pretty hard to find a day where there isn’t a big game on.

However, this has also exposed the former reliance on pubs or stadiums, for many fans to watch their favourite team. A large proportion of people simply don’t want to fork out the huge sum of money for all the different providers of Premier League football. Given that there are technically four payment-required broadcasters providing matches from that league alone, you can’t avoid spending a pretty penny if you want to see the team you support week in week out. Amazon Prime has been the most recent company which has acquired rights to Premier League games, and it just adds another layer to the abundance of streaming services and entertainment providers already being paid for.

With pubs and stadiums closed to fans, this has removed the ability to avoid paying for numerous sporting providers. For many years, this has either resulted in people either missing out on their escape from the stresses of a global pandemic, or looking for other options such as illegal streams or paying for one day subscriptions like that offered by Now TV. Sport coming back on TV gives fans a lot to look forward to especially in the tough winter months, but if you haven’t got considerable disposable income this is very hard to access.

The other issue with this is the main alternative itself: illegal streams. This has been the only way for some fans to get access to their team’s matches, and obviously demand throughout the pandemic has been much higher, with people being stuck at home with little else to do. This creates a number of problems: be it the threat of accidentally downloading malware, inappropriate ads or clubs, which in the current climate are desperate for funding, or missing out on essential funds.

Also, among students, this has been a problem as it is unlikely the average student house will have all the required channels to watch your favourite sport. This reveals just another sad reality of the pandemic and its effect on sport at university. For multiple clubs a big part of the week isn’t only training or matches, but going to watch the big game (in any sport) at the pub or round a mates house as a club.

Nouse Business Editor Barney Andrews stated how he “paid ten pounds to watch the Manchester derby which finished 0-0 with a friend. Very expensive for 24 hours’ access” He also spoke of the aforementioned rise in demand for illegal streams coming from “TV companies holding onto lucrative deals (hard to change admittedly) which risks students getting viruses on computers. I used to watch Manchester United games with teammates from Halifax College FC after matches but of course that’s stopped, it's not so much not being able to watch games as easily as it is watching them with your friends!” Students aren't only missing the games themselves but the camaraderie which comes with the viewing experience as a whole.

This week sees the return of the Champions League, however the expense of BT Sport subscriptions mean a large number of football fans will miss out. Hopefully the path out of the pandemic will give people an idea of when viewing in pubs and stadiums will again become an option. This is, however, the reality of the current lockdown and is unlikely to change – mainly due to the correct balance needing to be met. Many clubs are underpinned by the huge amount of money which broadcasting brings in, however this creates a tough paradox for viewership. It has to be expensive so the clubs survive, especially with the implications of the global pandemic, but they also need to allow as many people to view it as possible. Something's got to give.

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