How politicians could help sports fans save money on costly subscriptions - John Grogan

Saturday will see the climax of the rugby six nations tournament which for decades has been part of the rhythm of the United Kingdom’s sporting calendar and indeed one of the events which binds the nation together.

Starting in the depths of winter it concludes at a time when spring is just around the corner.

Just like the Wimbledon finals, the Olympics, the Grand National, the FA Cup Final and the Football World Cup all three of this Saturday’s matches will be available on free to air tv.

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Unlike all the other sporting events mentioned, however, the Six Nations is not one of the ‘listed events’ which must by law be offered to free to air channels for broadcast to all.

England’s Tommy Freeman (right) is tackled by Ireland’s Jamison Gibson-Park during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. PIC: David Davies/PA Wire.England’s Tommy Freeman (right) is tackled by Ireland’s Jamison Gibson-Park during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. PIC: David Davies/PA Wire.
England’s Tommy Freeman (right) is tackled by Ireland’s Jamison Gibson-Park during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. PIC: David Davies/PA Wire.

The BBC and ITV’s current rights deal for the rugby runs from 2022 to 2025 and soon negotiations will start as to what follows. Discovery /TNT Sport are rumoured to want to take the whole tournament behind a paywall.

Barbara Slater, the BBC’s outgoing director of sport, has warned that the broadcaster could lose the rights due to the cost and her counterpart at ITV, Niall Sloane, has said there were ‘well founded’ fears that the competition could be lost to terrestrial television.

The Government has repeatedly declined to extend the list of events for which live coverage is protected to include the Six Nations.

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They have argued that under existing regulations highlights of the matches must be offered to free to air tv.

Yet all sports fans know that it is live coverage, with all its twists and turns and human dramas which thrills the blood.

It is live coverage that inspires the next generation to take up sports that they previously knew little about.

Of course an appropriate balance needs to be struck between (in the words of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) ensuring events of national interest ‘are free to air wherever possible’ whilst also ‘protecting competition organisers ability to raise income from the sale of broadcast rights to invest in their sports’.

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On the other hand it is also worth remembering that much public money whether from the government or the sports councils goes into these same governing bodies. In return they surely have some responsibility to enable all citizens young and old, rich and poor to view some of their top events.

The list has changed little in recent times with the most important additions (in 2022) being the Women’s Football World Cup and European Championships matching the long-standing protection of the men’s equivalent tournaments .

As the general election approaches the political parties are beginning to take a greater interest in this whole debate. This very weekend the Liberal Democrats have their spring conference in York.

On the agenda is a motion which calls for the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of listed events to be expanded to include not just the aforementioned Six Nations but also the Ryder Cup.

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Mention is also made of listing some of the greatest moments of international cricket such as the World Cups and the home Ashes series. The latter has never quite gripped the national consciousness on Sky in the same way it did on Channel 4 back in 2005 when viewing figures peaked at 8.4 million.

Meanwhile broadcasting regulations are a reserved rather than a devolved matter so it is Ministers in Whitehall who currently have the final say. In Scotland, the SNP government has claimed that independence would allow the Government north of the border to add to the list of events the Scottish men’s and women’s football qualifier matches for the World Cup and European Championships.

Meanwhile in the House of Lords in the coming months the media bill will be debated. A cross party coalition will try to expand the concept of listed events to include digital rights as well as linear TV rights.

More and more people are now consuming sporting content on their phones or their tablets either live or in the form of catch up highlights.

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Digital catch up is particularly important when events are in different time zones and the live action takes place in the middle of the night UK time.

The principle remains that a wider cross section of the nation will be able to do this if the content is free.

In 2023, 12 million watched England’s Lionesses v Spain in the World Cup Final live on BBC One whilst there were an additional 3.9 million streams Online. Overall for the whole of the World Cup streaming increased by 75 per cent compared to the previous tournament in 2019

Expanding and modernising the sporting listed events might prove attractive to more than one political party searching for manifesto ideas which would not cost the public purse a penny whilst saving sports fans some costly subscriptions.

John Grogan is Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Keighley and Ilkley.

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