Reporting restrictions

“…but first, the classified football results, with James Alexander Gordon.” Generations have hung on every word of Sports Report, but Csaba Abrahall  believes that the BBC is squandering its heritage

The BBC, never slow to congratulate itself on its sport coverage, devoted two hours of air time in early January to a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Sports Report, the Saturday evening results and review show currently residing on Five Live. But among the procession of presenters and personalities wheeled out to reminisce about crowding round a wireless, body tingling at the evocative theme music, there was little discussion about the challenge to the programme posed by the changing nature of the football weekend – a largely television-driven challenge that the old radio stalwart is struggling to meet.

A revolution in media coverage of football in recent years has come to threaten Sports Report’s raison d’être. With the internet providing a constant supply of information about the game and an ever-increasing number of matches being moved away from Saturday afternoons, Sports Report is losing its place as the weekend’s primary source of football news. It can be left looking superfluous – excluded from the main events, such as the forced drama of “Grand Slam Sunday”. It is a vehicle for Premier League news, yet often with little news to convey.

Had Five Live not fallen for the Premier League propaganda quite so completely, perhaps this would not be such an issue. But whereas in the past it was not unknown for a lower-league game to be selected for commentary in preference to any from a full top-flight schedule, it is inconceivable that the self-styled “home of live sport” would do so today. Only the Premier League will do, and when Sky or now Setanta has a 5.15 Saturday evening kick-off, Five Live is predictably unable to resist.

Sports Report
has consequently been butchered, leaving a show of just 15 minutes that, once the classified results have been run through, offers just a few minutes to expand on the day’s events. Given the consequent minimal amount of sport covered and reporting undertaken, the programme’s title begins to look like a misnomer of scandalous proportions.

For supporters whose interest in the game does not stretch beyond the Premier League, perhaps this format works well. A brief but inclusive round-up of the day’s action segueing into an extra commentary – usually the third of the day on Five Live – is doubtless welcome. It results in an ­exclusively football-filled Sports Report, a pleasant change for those of us who found the boring stuff about rugby and horse racing that filled time until the second reading of the results (a casualty of the new format, incidentally) a tedious inconvenience.

As often seems to be the case, it is supporters of lower-league clubs that suffer most. The departure to a 5.15 commentary eliminates the programme’s ability to cover activity below the Premier League in any meaningful way, and the rest of the programme fails to make amends. If you’ve been to a game, it is likely that you will even have missed the results by the time you have made it back to the car. Although Five Live Sports Extra attempts to compensate with good coverage of the Football League, digital radio remains an avenue inaccessible to more people than broadcasters seem to appreciate.

Sports Report’s inability and unwillingness to maintain the comprehensiveness of its coverage makes it something less than the essential listening that previous generations of supporters have found it to be. Consumers are likely to seek out alternatives, which are plentiful. Sky Sports News’ Soccer Saturday continues into the evening, includes ample coverage of the Football League and has in Jeff Stelling a presenter unashamed to show that his principal interest in the game does not lie in enthralled adoration of the Premier League. Even Ray Stubbs and chums on BBCi’s rather colourless Score can seem a better bet. And no doubt thousands of car radios are tasked with finding an alternative radio station as soon as the abridged Sports Report calls it a day, if not before.

On Saturday evenings, fans want to know what has happened around the country and what it means. Sports Report no longer provides that service as thoroughly or as flexibly as its competitors. While there used to be no choice, now there is no end of choice, and Five Live’s insistence on carrying the 5.15 commentary will finalise a demise that began with the gradual move to Sunday as the weekend’s football focal point.

Sixty years of Sports Report is a landmark worthy of recognition. As the BBC’s mawkish celebrations insisted on pointing out, there cannot be a football fan who has not been touched by its presence. But rather than simply acclaiming its past success and acceding unquestioningly to the whims of the Premier League, the BBC would do well to seek to recapture its unique selling point and its relevance if supporters are to continue to anticipate the opening bars of Out of the Blue so eagerly.

From WSC 253 March 2008