Let’s make one thing clear, Sky Sports’ coverage of Formula One racing is the best out there. As with Football, Cricket, Rugby, Darts and Golf – and indeed whichever sport they are broadcasting – the level of detail they apply to their coverage is beyond anything provided anywhere else on television. It helps, of course, having dedicated channels and unlimited time and resources to spend on their coverage but, as a product, there are few that can come close to it.
And, as a subscription service, that’s the way it should be too. Sky doesn’t come cheap after all. And therein lies the problem with this week’s major news that Channel 4 will only show ONE Grand Prix race live in 2019, the British GP. Fans are understandably up in arms as an already harder to access sport has been taken away from them, but one for one live race out of a schedule of twenty-one.
Again, take nothing away from Sky as a broadcaster and the current agreement, while far from perfect, is working very well. F1 is, indeed, booming right now. But, by limiting terrestrial TV to a single free-to-air race in 2019, we risk losing the next generation of fans. Next year’s championship will largely be hidden from UK viewers unless they subscribe to Sky meaning millions of homes will be denied the opportunity to watch their heroes race. This cannot be good for the future of the sport, as the next generation will quickly lose interest. Especially in the UK where this year’s Championship favourite Lewis Hamilton originates from.
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This has always been a standing argument in televised sport. In the UK, we proudly accept that, for the good for the games involved, some events must be made available to free-to-air broadcasters. This includes the FIFA World Cup just gone, which was shared by the BBC and ITV, the FA Cup Final, select Horse races, various Rugby events, the Wimbledon Tennis tournament, and Olympics to name a few.
And, yes, the British Grand Prix is one of these. Indeed, Sky’s current deal runs until 2024, and they have always insisted that the British event would be available on free-to-air TV. Before Bernie Ecclestone left the sport in 2016, the last deal he made with broadcasters ensured that Sky Sports would hold exclusive rights to all Formula One races, save for the British Grand Prix which would be broadcast on a NEW “free-to-air” channel that would also broadcast a highlights package. This was also the year that Channel 4 acquired the free-to-air TV rights from the BBC under the remit to show 10 live races a year.
That deal, however, comes to an end in 2019, hence the new agreement which Sky and Channel 4 have described as an innovative content partnership. What this fancy term seemingly means is that Channel 4 is now limited to highlights only plus one live race, the British, per year. As a further part of the deal, Sky’s Original production, Tin Star, will also be broadcast on Channel 4.
Understandably, the news hasn’t gone down well with Formula One fans that have already become disillusioned at what they see as the sport they love moving further away from the terrestrial television. There is not just the £100+ a month price tag that puts people off, there is a principle for some. And for those, there is now the need to perhaps spend their Sundays with their phones off, less one of a thousand installed apps alerts a user of any race updates and outcomes, hence ruining a highlights viewing later that day. Anyone who has been forced to watch delayed sports coverage knows this dilemma only too well.
This disillusionment should be cause for some concern to those who run the game just at the time when it should be peaking. At least one “bonus” for Channel 4’s coverage of the 2019 British Grand Prix is that it is set to be the last ever to take place at Silverstone, which at least provides with an angle to their solitary live broadcast. Even if it’s not a very welcome one.