Wrong signals

Fans complain about being priced out of football, but what about the radio networks? As Haydn Parry reports, the BBC isn't too worried, for the moment

BBC Radio Five Live is facing competition for its commentary coverage from the national commercial station Talk Radio. Paul Robinson, Talk Radio’s general manager, has already persuaded the BBC to allow it to broadcast Nationwide League games, and securing European games is now part of a wider gameplan. The station can attempt to outbid Five Live for rights to a club’s home games in Europe because it’s up to the clubs involved to handle rights themselves.

So, while Five Live secured commentaries on Newcastle United’s home games in the Cup-Winners Cup, Talk has secured the rights to Chelsea’s home legs in the competition. Yet Five Live does not feel particularly threatened in a field where it is the undisputed market leader with an overall audience of just over five million, roughly twice that of Talk’s.

Mike Lewis, controller of BBC Radio Sports Rights, remains sanguine: “Chelsea’s games have ended up on Talk because, even though we’d reached a verbal agreement with the club, Talk came in with a late and higher offer which, as we had already come to an agreement with Newcastle, we decided was too high for us to trump. As Talk had failed to land the Premier League it was always likely they would try to make an impact in Europe.”

Of course, even if a network secures commentary rights, it is still reliant on the club to do the business on the pitch. In the case of the Cup-Winners Cup, Newcastle fans were not the only ones surprised by their early exit. Five Live’s controller Roger Mosey says: “Obviously it’s disappointing that Newcastle have gone out at the first hurdle, but we have to accept that we cannot buy every team or every game that is going. We’ll be looking to Chelsea’s away games and we already have a contract for the final, so if they get there that game will definitely be live on the BBC.” Besides, there are bigger prizes…

The Premier League is the brightest star in the commentary firmament, and Five Live have the rights until the end of the 2000-2001 season. Right now it’s not possible to see beyond that date except to say that the competition to secure rights will be fierce. Five Live feels that one strong card with the clubs is that it is a BBC Network with a public service remit. Mike Lewis says: “I know that many of the chairmen and chief executives are regular listeners to Five Live, they like the informal style and, of course, the sports coverage, but they appreciate the news programmes too and they trust a BBC network to be fair and accurate. On the other hand the clubs are big businesses these days and may choose to go elsewhere sometimes to sell their rights. In a competitive market place that’s inevitable, I guess – you only have to see how fragmented the TV sports rights market has become.”

At what point do the football clubs stop putting established relationships above the money that’s on offer elsewhere? Or, to take it all an Orwellian stage further, why worry about the objectivity and quality of the journalism at all? Chairmen may well say they favour a network with a strong track record when choosing where to sell their “product”, but we’ve reached an era where chief executives time the firing of a manager to minimise any adverse effects on club shares. They also don’t like to hear criticism of rises in season ticket prices or derisive comments about the launch of a fifth kit in as many seasons. With clubs planning their own digital TV adventures, and the kind of self-censorship we all know that will involve, how near are we to a commercial station that is prepared to be Radio Clubcall, tip-toeing around anything remotely controversial, fearful of losing its exclusive rights to match commentaries? “Fear not, Leeds fans! George Graham is going nowhere…”

Being outbid for access to commentaries is a a kick in the teeth to a sportsroom, and the BBC’s experience at local radio level illustrates why the bidding for commentary rights is so fierce at the national level. Take BBC Radio Sheffield’s position. Sheffield Wednesday are in the final year of an exclusive four-year deal with local commercial station Hallam FM, and Sheffield United have an agreement that allows Hallam exclusive commentary rights to 25 matches of their choosing, leaving the BBC station to do any games left over.

David Burns, Radio Sheffield’s sports reporter, feels their hands are tied: “There was nothing more frustrating last season than not doing United’s FA Cup semi-final, especially when the station had done so much about the club in the build-up. I think the fans definitely suffer because commercial stations don’t always do games. Hallam didn’t do Wednesday’s Worthington Cup game at Cambridge; we would have done but couldn’t. On the commentary front it’s just very, very frustrating because we believe we can offer the fans a better service. We use the likes of David Speedie and Chris Waddle and there’s no way they will tailor their opinions so they don’t upset the club. The fans respect that. I don’t know if our commercial rivals would tone down a story – but I know we wouldn’t.”

At a national level, Five Live is quite prepared to fight its corner and secure the best possible coverage in match commentaries. However for Mike Lewis, the man at the sharp end of the future negotiations

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month