Sunday, 31 October 2010

Up All Night

One of the most attractive aspects of sport is the fact that every event is unique and unpredictable. While other forms of entertainment are pre-determined, it is sports unscripted nature that attracts spectators, viewers and fans in their millions. While there is always a place in the sporting landscape for highlights programmes such as Match of the Day or trips down memory lane on ESPN Classic, the live element of sport is so important to it that if it is removed it can diminish the enjoyment that fans take from it. It was always possible to record games using  a video recorder, but the advent of Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and Video On Demand services such as BBC iPlayer now mean that watching sport “as live” is easier than ever but it leaves you at the mercy of technology.

The live aspect of sport is so important to me that if I know the result or a major incident in a match, my interest wanes. It is the unpredictability that gives me the strength to sit through sometimes excruciatingly boring passages of play in the hope that something exciting is just around the corner. The live aspect is also important to me because I cannot cope with just seeing a result afterwards. Watching a football match for ninety minutes gives you time to accept the 5-0 thrashing, something that looking up the score on the internet does not afford you.

Formula One and American Football are but two sports that can take place at unsociable hours for British fans and watching them live requires serious discipline or being nocturnal. Before I acquired a PVR I would either have to watch a repeat, which would leave me in danger of finding out the result before I viewed the event. Although video recorders were an apt solution, I found it a complicated and occasionally fruitless procedure whereas now I can push a button and watch the match at my leisure without fear of finding out the result.

I did this last weekend for the inaugural Korean GP which was broadcast on the BBC and woke up eager to view the latest instalment in a thrilling climax to the 2010 Formula One season. Sky+ has the useful feature of being able to detect when a programme has been extended and adjusts the recording accordingly. Sadly, as good as Sky+ is, it is unable to account for torrential rain and the decision of the BBC to switch channels as the race overran its original timeslot. As it became apparent that the recording was too short, I was furious and I was not alone. I checked BBC iPlayer and although Part 1 of the race had been uploaded (the part that had been shown on BBC One), but part 2 (the part shown on BBC Two) had not been. In the end, since I am incapable of insulating myself from the internet and sporting media for longer than a few hours, I blinked and checked the result and discovered that I had missed out an eventful end to the race.

Another example of my new found dependence on technology thwarting me was when I recorded Monday Night Football on ESPN a few weeks ago. Green Bay travelled to Soldier Field to take on Chicago and a tense game was approaching a crescendo. Almost exactly at the two minute warning, my recording ended. This time there was no other way to view the final two minutes so I looked up the score and saw that the Packers had lost 20-17. The time invested in watching an event only to miss the end feels all the more wasted when the ending does not have a happy outcome.

The spread of PVR technology now means that sports fans can enjoy far more of the action ‘as live’ and has certainly changed the way we consume sport. The technology means that the live and spontaneous nature of sport isn’t removed and results in much of the attraction is retained. I can imagine that many baseball fans are grateful for that this week, given that much of the World Series will be broadcast while they are asleep.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sport for all... for a price

(PIC: Metro)

Following the removal of Sky Sports News from Freeview, there is no dedicated sports channel on Free to Air television in the UK. Since Sky arrived on the British broadcasting scene over twenty years ago, sport on television has experienced unprecedented expansion through the arrival of satellite television and dedicated sports networks. While sports that had never had much air time previously have benefited from this trend, more and more sporting events have been removed from FTA and placed behind a pay wall.

While Premier League football is the classic example of sport being used to attract subscribers, most sports and leagues have deals with Sky, ESPN or Eurosport. England home tests, which were broadcast on the BBC and later Channel Four, were removed from FTA in 2006 as part of a new broadcast deal between Sky and the ECB. This is but one recent example of a governing body seeking to maximise revenue from broadcasters eager to pay more for sports to strengthen the lure of their subscriptions. Premiership Rugby and Super League had already been on pay TV for many years and it is possible that the only major sport that it is possible to view comprehensively on FTA is Formula One, which is now one of the pillars of the BBC’s ever dwindling portfolio.

The movement of these mainstream sports to subscription television has been followed by many niche sports. Only two years ago, Channel Five’s late night schedule offered the insomniac viewer a variety of American sports including American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Coverage of these sports was cut as five sought to reduce expenditure in the current media climate. While the cost of the rights was relatively low, the studio production costs were unjustifiable given the limited audience and advertising revenue available in the small hours. While Channel Four and ESPN have picked up the NFL games that were on five, the NHL and MLB are now exclusive to ESPN America, who provide no studio production to accompany the American feed.

While the BBC continue to show many of the ‘crown jewel’ sporting events such as Wimbledon, The Open and the Olympics, it has recently lost exclusive rights to the US Masters to Sky Sports and the World Athletics Championships to Channel Four. The BBC does provide a substantial amount of sporting programming and its coverage is second to none but the loss of such important events is worrying. ITV 1’s sports strategy has shifted in recent years with its resources allocated to showing blue chip events such as the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup and England internationals. It infers that ITV believe that football is the only sport that merits the increased cost of securing television rights, although it has extended its deal with the IRB to show the Rugby World Cup.

The UK is seen as one of the biggest pay TV markets in the world and broadcasters are keen to exploit that as viewers are willing to pay for premium content, chiefly sport. In the US, the market is different as most premium sports channels cater for a specific audience such as local sports teams or niche sports such as football or cricket. While ESPN isn’t strictly free as it does require a basic cable subscription, the cost is minimal and the main networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX all show a variety of NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA action. In many countries across Europe, Eurosport is part of basic packages, while in Germany it is joined by Sport 1 which shows a variety of sport such as Moto GP, Bundesliga programming and even Premier League highlights.

The closest example that the UK has is ITV4 which has steadily built up a substantial portfolio of sporting rights. It broadcasts live UEFA Europa League football as well as programming from ITV’s other football properties, live coverage of the Tour de France and the British Touring Car Championships. In addition to this it provided the first FTA cricket coverage in five years when it showed the 2010 Indian Premier League and gave rugby union a Match of the Day style round up with its Premiership highlights which were joined this season by highlights from the Heineken and Challenge Cups. While many have criticised ITV’s sports coverage in the past, most notably when their HD channel missed England’s goal against the USA in the World Cup, its commitment to FTA sports should be commended.

We will probably never see Premier League football or even test cricket back on FTA television, but there remains the hope that one day we will be able to have a service similar to ESPN or Eurosport. The BBC have repeatedly rejected the possibility that they could create such a channel, arguing that the current red button service is effectively a sports channel while others believe that the boat has been missed.  Given that sport remains one of the few unifying events in an increasingly fragmented media market (programmes like the X Factor being another example), many sports could benefit from the increased exposure rather than the money that pay TV companies are willing to give them. Sports such as snooker increased in popularity because of coverage on television in the 70s and 80s and it is no coincidence that the organisers of Power Snooker, which aims to imitate the success of Twenty20 cricket and rejuvenate interest in the sport, have signed a deal with ITV4 to show the inaugural event this weekend.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

America's Game in the UK

Before the age of satellite television brought us wall to wall sporting coverage from every corner of the world, a new television channel called Channel Four brought American football to British screens on a Sunday evening. The game reached unprecedented levels of popularity during the 1980’s and developed a hardcore following. In 2007, the NFL brought a regular season game to the UK to the first time and the publicity that accompanied the match at Wembley introduced a whole new generation to America’s game. For a sport that has no significant domestic league in this country and remains at the periphery of Britain’s sporting mainstream, there is a wealth of coverage devoted to the NFL.

The NFL has four broadcasters in the UK. The main television broadcaster is Sky Sports who show games at 6:00pm and 9:00pm on Sunday. Coverage is presented by Kevin Cadle and Nick Halling who are joined by a guest pundit. Sky Sports also show the Thanksgiving games and then show the Thursday Night game which is aired in the US on NFL Network. This year, American football has returned to Channel Four as they have secured rights to Sunday Night Football. Gary Imlach, who had previously fronted American football for the channel, is joined by Mike Carlson, who was a pundit on five’s NFL coverage.  ESPN show Monday Night Football which is the flagship programme of their American counterparts and show the entire American production, including Monday Night Countdown. The BBC shows the Superbowl live with Sky Sports, who show the game exclusively in High Definition. While the coverage this year is an improvement on last year when Monday Night Football was absent from UK television, to watch every game shown you need two subscriptions and only one game a week is on free to air television and it is on late Sunday night. The quality of coverage is exceptional, especially in high definition and the studio programmes ensure that British viewers are not subject the frustrating number of advertising breaks that plague American viewers.

British fans can also listen to radio coverage which began last season. BBC 5 live sports extra provide coverage of a game at 9:00pm on Sunday nights. Commentary is taken from an American radio station or from the BBC’s own commentators in the states while the studio keeps the listener informed of the scores from around the league. The radio coverage is as good as the rest of Radio 5 live’s output and the inclusion of many of the best known NFL UK personalities such as Neil Reynolds means that it is as knowledgeable as anything the US can offer. For those seeking more audio coverage, the NFL UK ‘Inside the Huddle’ podcast provides both previews and reviews of the week’s action with Neil Reynolds and Mike Carlson.
Coverage of the NFL in the UK is as comprehensive as it can get, with at least four games a week shown live on television and another on the radio. It is covered as well in this country as football, rugby union, rugby league and cricket which means that following the league has never been easier for the American football fan.

Bringing The Stones Back Home

(PIC: Maidstone United)

On the 11th October, Oliver Ash and lifelong fan Terry Casey finally completed their takeover of Maidstone United following a protracted saga that has mirrored the team’s 22 year absence from the county town. After a tough year financially for the club, the takeover should provide the boost that the Stones need for their league campaign and the impetus for a return to Maidstone.

Ash had been on the club’s board since February 2008 when his company Richmond Developments, a French-based real estate company, secured 25% of the club. Lashings, who run an all-star cricket team and a restaurant in Maidstone, were also in the running, but Ash and Casey were seen as the ideal candidates for the takeover, especially with Ash’s background in construction. The deal sees an end to the tenure of Paul Bowden-Powell, who has worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of the reformed football club since its inception and the long-term ambition of bringing football back to Maidstone.

Maidstone United have not played in their hometown since 1988 when they sold their London Road ground and have played in Dartford, Sittingbourne and most recently Ashford. The current incarnation of the club was born in 1992 following the bankruptcy of Maidstone United’s previous iteration. After a steady rise through the non-league pyramid, The Stones were finally promoted to the Ryman Premier Division on 2007 and have remained there since. Recently however, the club’s fortunes have been on the wane. Financial problems were exacerbated by last year’s cold weather which resulted in just one home game played in six weeks meaning the players were not paid. The arrival of Ash and Casey should bring the club onto a more sound financial footing, but the question remains; when will the Stones come home?

Paul Bowden-Powell made it his mission to return football to Maidstone and in 2004 and a plan to open a new ground at James Whatman Way was unanimously approved by councillors. The initial plan was to open the stadium in 2006, but a series of setbacks has ensured that the ground has not progressed significantly beyond the planning process. In March 2006, the land needed to build the stadium was secured on a 99 year lease from the Ministry of Defence with a view to opening in time for the 2007/2008 season. The plans included a main stand with two covered terraces, a club house and parking. The club had leased the land with a ten year loan from the Borough Council but financial problems remained. Despite Ash’s investment in 2008, the club had applied for a £1.2m grant from the Football Association and the Football Foundation, but this was rejected. Bowden-Powell earmarked 2010 as the new date for a return to Maidstone, despite the latest setback. While Bowden-Powell acknowledged the role that the Borough Council played in the advances made, he lamented the lack of support for sport in the area. This does hold some truth, especially when Maidstone has not hosted league football for twenty years and county cricket for four years.

Ash’s takeover should speed up the return to Maidstone and he is formalising a new business plan to present to investors. The new stadium is necessary for the club to avoid the fate that the original team suffered as a new ground would increase revenue and would reignite support in the team. Glenn Aitken, a former Stones player who was working with the Lashings bid to take over the club, believed that the level of support for Maidstone was the same as that of AFC Wimbledon, but it was more passive because the team did not play in the town.

While the first home game at James Whatman Way may not happen in the near future, the takeover is a step in the right direction for The Stones to finally end their exile.

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Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Sporting Niche

The 2010 Commonwealth Games are underway and competitors from the former colonies of the British Empire (as well as Mozambique and Rwanda) have arrived in Delhi for the quadrennial celebration of sport. The Delhi games have been plagued by a number of problems ranging from security issues to unhygienic living quarters while a number of the Commonwealth’s most prominent athletes including Olympic and World Champion Usain Bolt have stayed away. These issues have led many to question the credibility of the competition and its relevance in today’s sporting world. While it is true that the Commonwealth Games are not on a par with the Olympics in terms of scale and competitiveness, it retains importance as it provides an arena in which smaller countries can have influence, something that the Olympics cannot afford them.

It is important to see the Commonwealth Games in a historical context. First held in Hamilton, Canada in 1930, the British Empire Games, as they were then known, were a celebration of the common bond that cemented the Empire. Following the Second World War and decolonisation, the Commonwealth was established as “A voluntary association of those states which have experienced some form of British rule who wish to work together to further their individual and common interests”. For the British this represented a way of retaining a degree of informal control having relinquished their political rule over the colonies, while for the newly formed states it allowed them access to the world stage in a way that existing inter-governmental organisations such as the UN and IOC did not. The games were used as a diplomatic tool and played a vital role in the exile of South Africa from the global sporting arena in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Commonwealth Games presented a method of isolating South Africa without jeopardising individual countries’ participation in other diplomatic arenas. Sport was a way of demonstrating against apartheid especially through the use of boycotts which were both highly visible and inexpensive. Many African countries boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games after the New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa, but this boycott was overshadowed by the Two Chinas debate. The 1978 Commonwealth Games were due to be held in Edmonton and the threat of a boycott loomed. The Commonwealth Games were largely void of the Cold War tensions that the Olympics experienced and any potential boycott would have a far greater impact. The result was the Gleneagles agreement which allowed the Commonwealth Games Federation to exclude members while bringing to an end any previous conflicts. This demonstrated the benefits of the games to its members as they were able to exert more influence than they would do in the IOC.  After the New Zealand issue was resolved, Britain became the next target of the anti-apartheid movement, resulting from the British government’s failure to enforce stronger sanctions on South Africa. The consequence was an African-led boycott of the 1986 games in Edinburgh.

The issue of South Africa during the apartheid era gave the Commonwealth Games a political purpose but after the end of minority rule, questions were raised over the future of the event. There were moves to make the event more economically viable and the benefits were stressed to any potential hosts. The awarding of the games to Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and to Delhi in 2010 have given developing countries a chance to demonstrate their ability to host major sporting events, something that the Olympics has yet to do. 

While the 2010 Commonwealth Games have had many problems, they still matter. The Commonwealth allows smaller countries to have more influence, while permits countries such as Canada to differentiate itself from the United States. What started as a British attempt to employ a more informal method of control over its former colonies, turned into a forum which could eventually be used to direct criticism at Britain itself. The creation of the secretariat decreased the Anglo-centricity of the Commonwealth, while the changing of the name from the British Empire Games to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954 and to the present title in 1978 demonstrates the shifting influence of the games. Delhi 2010 may not be attracting the crowds, or even the athletes, but the games have formed a niche in the sporting world. In 2014 the games will be held in Glasgow and it is not optimistic to predict that they will be a success.