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Listed Sporting Events

Volume 644: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2018

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered listed sporting events.

We are less than three hours away from the big match live and free on ITV: England versus Croatia. The nation’s favourite commercial channel, BAFTA-winning for its sport production, is said to expect up to 30 million people to watch that match tonight. Some superstitious English fans would say that England rarely win on ITV—the statistics over the last 20 years show that they have more often won on the BBC. However, I am glad to say that this jinx was broken just a few days ago when England beat Colombia live and free on ITV, so we are safe under the gaze of Mark Pougatch, who will introduce the programme today, but I think it will go to penalties.

I can remember 1966, although you are far too young, Mrs Moon. We watched it at home. My dad had just got his first job as a headteacher at a primary school and we had moved into a new semi-detached house. I was five, and my grandma and my mum were there. My mum was not a football fan. Both my parents are long since dead, but my mum must have done a deal with my dad, because she wanted to go to the plant shop up the road to get plants for the new house. The match kicked off at 3 o’clock in those days; my dad must have said that at 10 to 5 they would go to the plant shop. But he had not reckoned on extra time, so he had to go. One of my earliest memories at five is insisting that I stayed with grandma to watch that match live and free. I remember my dad came back half an hour later, just in time for that most iconic British sports commentary, when Kenneth Wolstenholme said:

“There are people on the pitch. They think it’s all over”—

and then the fourth goal went in and he said the iconic line, “It is now.”

Since that match in 1966, many things have changed about the way that people consume football. Last night, I was at the all-party parliamentary beer group. Next to me were two Ministers of the Crown, who I will not name. I had my mobile phone with me and we watched the last five minutes of the other semi-final behind the menu, which I believe you watched in Brussels, Mrs Moon. We did what many people do these days: consume the match on a whole variety of devices. Up to 5 million people watched the last England match on the BBC through those devices.

Many things have changed, but audience sizes have not. It is not just for the England games, but the other games that have been on the BBC: Portugal versus Spain—that tremendous free kick from Ronaldo, watched by 10.4 million people; Argentina versus Nigeria, watched by 9.9 million; Germany versus Mexico, watched by 9.5 million. We enjoy a great world festival in this country.

At times, politicians have considered whether the whole World cup should be so listed, but it is great that we list it all. It means that every little bar and restaurant in the country can show the games live and free. I watched one of the games in Tommi’s Burger Joint in Marylebone, which gave a free beer every time Iceland scored—they did not score many goals in that match. In my constituency, Cougar Park will hold a mass showing for free tonight. There are many venues up and down the country; I will mention one other—Cantinho do Aziz, just near Leeds station, which is a Portuguese café, had been following not just the Portuguese games but all the games.

The tournament is a big boost to our hospitality industry and it is not an accident. It happens because we have the listed events law, which goes back to the 1950s and was updated in the 1990s, not without controversy. The late Lord Howell was particularly active from the Opposition Back Benches in those days, ensuring that the law in the 1990s was rigorous. We made that decision as a nation, but my fear is that if the World cup had been in our country—there was a World cup bid in 2018 under the last Labour Government—not all the matches would have been live and free on free-to-air channels.

The Government at the time were under tremendous pressure from FIFA, as has been documented. They made a promise to FIFA that they would basically get rid of that law if we got the World cup. Perhaps the England matches would still be live and free, and perhaps the final, but most of the matches would have gone to the highest bidder. We would have lost something. FIFA and UEFA do not like that law; they have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on expensive lawyers to try to get it struck down in our courts, without success. I hope that if the four home nations of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England think about a bid for the World cup in 2030, the Government and the football bodies will make it clear from the outset that we do not intend to change the law in order to sweeten the pill. FIFA has reformed considerably since 2010; a signal of that reform will be that it respects the laws of countries that aspire to hold the World cup in future and does not put pressure on us to change that law.

That was the first of four points that I want to make. My second point is about which sports should be protected by being listed. That is looked at from time to time. We no longer protect the university boat race in the relevant legislation, for example. There were two reviews under the last Labour Government—the first in the 1990s and the second towards the end of that Government. Let me take a look at a couple of sports that were affected by those reviews.

Cricket is perhaps my favourite sport—Yorkshire cricket in particular. In fact, I forgot to mention that no fewer than seven members of the England football squad at the World cup are from God’s own county. One of the great attractions of the England team is that they represent the whole of England, which comes out in their interviews—but back to cricket. In the late 1990s, the Labour Government decided to take live coverage of test matches off the list. Lord MacLaurin, who then chaired the England and Wales Cricket Board, said, “We’ll always keep some live cricket on free-to-air TV.” Sports fans of any kind will remember the glorious summer of 2005, when England played Australia for the Ashes. About 9 million people watched the final test match at the Oval, where England reclaimed the Ashes. That was the last free live cricket of any substance on our television screens.

It is interesting to look at the figures published by Sport England, which tracked participation in a whole range of sports from 2005 to 2016, when it changed its methodology slightly. There was a spike in participation in cricket immediately after 2005, amid the great enthusiasm for the sport after the Ashes series was shown on Channel 4, but those numbers quickly fell away. Cricket clubs around the country tell us that it is now much harder to muster a team. According to Sport England’s figures, participation decreased by about a third over that decade. Contrast that with the 50% increase in participation in athletics, which is much more commonly available.

Towards the end of the Labour Government, the Davies review suggested putting test cricket back on the list. At the time, a gentleman called Philip French worked as a special adviser to the Labour Secretary of State. The ECB, in its wisdom, lobbied heavily against that proposal, the coalition Government came in, Philip French moved over to work for the ECB and the proposal was never implemented.

However, the ECB’s thinking has changed in the intervening years. I know from talking to ECB officials that what brought it home to them that they had a problem—it brought it home to me, too—was a poll of schoolchildren, who were given a picture of Joe Root, the England cricket captain and perhaps the finest living Yorkshireman, and a picture of a wrestler from the United States. Far more of the children recognised the wrestler than recognised Joe Root. I think at that point the cricket authorities recognised they had a problem. They do not support the re-listing of test cricket, but they have done a deal with the BBC, which means that some cricket—a new Twenty20 tournament, plus highlights of tournaments such as the world cup and test matches—will come back to the BBC. I hope the BBC is able to do for cricket what it did for the FA cup: revive it and really promote it.

Golf is another sport that suffered from coming off free-to-air TV. The only live golf on British free-to-air TV is the final two rounds of the Masters from the United States. The Open championship is now hidden away on subscription TV, and viewing figures have plummeted. Many top golfers warned the governing bodies, including the Royal and Ancient, which struggled for many years to admit women to some of its courses and is not necessarily the most progressive governing body, about that. Justin Rose, who won the Olympics golf tournament, said:

“I think having golf coverage on free channels is important to the growth of the game…You can see it through the massive support Andy Murray receives and that’s largely because Wimbledon is still on the Beeb. It resonates because everyone watches it.”

As I said, golf is suffering and fewer people are participating in it.

This is the fifth debate I have called about this subject in my chequered parliamentary career, which has been a bit on-off. Estelle Morris, a good friend of mine who is now in the Lords, was the Minister who replied to one of those debates. She said:

“Looking back, it is amazing how little the sports and events that one would assume to be the most popular have changed. My hon. Friend”—

that was me—

“mentioned the most popular sports and they are, in the main, the same ones that”


“bound the nation together”

for years. She continued:

“We must always bear in mind, however, the potential for changing views in sport.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 692.]

I suggest that the biggest change in the past 10 years is in women’s participation in sport—not just by watching it but by taking part. I think most Members would welcome that.

The big sporting world cups—those in cricket, rugby and football—are important to that. At the moment, some of those are on free-to-air TV. I think 3 million people watched the women’s world cup on ITV. The next world cup tournament, for which the Prime Minister says she will proudly put the flag of St George up at Downing Street every bit as much as it has been this week, will be live on the BBC. But those events are not protected at all, and I worry that as they become more popular, they will become more attractive to pay-per-view channels and we may lose them. That is the best argument for the list to be reviewed and for sports to be added to it.

My third point is about which channels qualify for showing listed events. The Government have moved on that issue, which is very technical. Basically, to qualify to show a listed event, a channel has to have 95% coverage across the nation. However, as more people do as I did last night and watch action on a phone, fewer people may have televisions. We may get to the stage where no channels qualify because less than 95% of people have televisions in their houses.

At the urging of free-to-air channels, the Government put a section in the Digital Economy Act 2017 that gives Ministers the power, should that criterion ever look dodgy, to look at other criteria. Those may include a channel’s reach—some people suggested 90% reach would be a good criterion—through whatever device. I am not expecting an announcement today, but I hope that the Government keep that under careful review in the years ahead. It would be a great pity if we lost the benefit of that law for technical reasons.

My fourth and final point is about the four-yearly listed event that the most people are aware of, perhaps alongside the World cup—the summer Olympic games. The Olympics have always been on free-to-air TV. In fact, they are listed in their entirety. Some events, such as the FA cup final and the Wimbledon men’s and women’s finals, are listed in part, but the Olympics, like the World cup, are listed in their entirety. This point is a bit complex, but the BBC has the rights to the 2020 Olympic games. The International Olympic Committee, in a break from practice, sold the 2024 rights across Europe to the Discovery channel. The BBC did a deal—I do not blame it for that—that will result in a sort of swap. It said, “As long as we can show 200 hours on two streams of the 2024 games, we will do the same in 2020 and you, Discovery-Eurosport, can show the rest of the sports.”

That is probably a matter for Ofcom, which will eventually rule on these issues, but Ofcom has indicated to me that there may be very different situations in 2020 and 2024. The BBC won the rights for 2020 and gifted some of them, through a commercial arrangement, to Discovery. That may be passable by Ofcom. However, there was no opportunity for a free-to-air channel to bid for the 2024 rights. Discovery might have interesting conversations with Ofcom about that, and I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Ofcom will approve it.

Why does that matter? In the past three Olympic games, British television viewers and those viewing on other devices have become used to seeing all the sports—any sport they want to watch—on the red button. It has been good for minority sports. I think there will be a backlash against that change, come the next summer Olympics.

This is not the most important issue in the world—many more important things are happening—but sport brings a lot of pleasure to many people. Rich and poor, young and old, sports-lovers and non sports-lovers have all been able to enjoy not just the England matches but the whole carnival that is the World cup. I, for one, hope that may continue long into the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) on securing the debate and his incredible expertise on the subject. I listened to his speech with great interest. It is a pleasure to talk about this subject on such a day, following England’s incredible win at the weekend, and we will all want to wish the team a lot of luck for tonight.

Sport is one of the few things that has the power to bring the nation together. When the biggest sporting events are on, everything stops and the anticipation builds. For really big events like the one tonight, everyone will be talking about it the next day. Last week, 23.8 million people watched England’s game against Colombia, and 20 million people watched England’s game against Sweden. That is even more than watched the royal wedding, and of course that does not include the many who congregate around a particular viewing point.

It is not just by chance that so many people were able to tune in and see those World cup games. The efforts of past Governments, which the hon. Gentleman took us through, have ensured that key sporting events of national importance are available for all to watch on free-to-air television.

The listed events regime, one of the foundations of our broadcasting system in the UK, sets out to have the best interests of viewers at its heart. Since its creation, it has ensured that everyone can share in major British sporting triumphs. Ten million people saw Kelly Holmes win her historic gold medal in Athens, and 15 million saw Jonny Wilkinson win us the rugby world cup in 2003—I still remember that. Nobody can forget the incredible few weeks that were London 2012. Listed events, and in turn our public service broadcasters, are fundamental to broadcasting in the UK, especially as viewing habits and the media landscape change. Of course, more people—more than 80% of the UK population—are watching online than ever before, and we are increasingly watching television on our phones and laptops at different times of the day. A record number of people streamed the England-Sweden game on BBC iPlayer, and nearly 4 million people watched it solely online.

In a world where people can subscribe to Netflix, Amazon and Sky or Virgin at the same time, it is more important than ever that free-to-air public service broadcasters can make an attractive offer to viewers. There is so much choice that it can be hard to know what to subscribe to and what to dispense with. However, the pull of public service broadcasters is still powerful, with 85% of people watching one of those channels every week. Together, they command a 55% share of all television viewing, independent of sport.

Our public service broadcasters spent £515 million on sport last year,[Official Report, 11 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 3MC.] delivering just over 3,000 hours of content; only factual programmes have more money invested in them. They contribute a huge amount to grassroots sport, with more than half a billion pounds flowing from broadcasters to national governing bodies, which helps sports to increase their grassroots appeal and gives children the opportunity to try new sports when otherwise they might not have been able to do so.

Understandably, our broadcasters can spend only so much money on buying rights to different sporting events. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on golf. My personal opinion is that the British Open is much missed from the BBC, which sadly was not able to acquire the rights. However, if other genres started to suffer because of the amount spent on sport, that would not be fair to those who are not big sports fans. It is a difficult balancing act.

Furthermore, some sporting bodies may believe that they can drive a higher price for their rights by working with pay-TV providers or even internet companies such as Amazon. There is the opportunity for sports not on the list to forge their own path. It is ultimately for the national sporting bodies to decide whether they want to try to maximise their returns or strike a balance with a potentially bigger audience. That was at the root of the cricket issue, on which the hon. Gentleman made a number of good points.

The Government’s position is to not reopen the list of events, which we believe to be working and delivering the best outcomes for the viewing public. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that the Digital Economy Act 2017 enables us to change the criteria that underpin the list. He might wish to give that further consideration.

It is desirable for sports to try their best to maximise their audience and their income. I encourage sporting bodies to do their best to adhere to the voluntary broadcast principles of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which include trying to ensure that at least highlights are shown on free-to-air television so that, for example, we can still watch golf highlights in that way.

It would be ideal to see all major sporting events on free-to-air television, but to date that has not been possible. We have to strike the right balance, so we keep the list under review. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to acquaint myself with more of the detail of this important matter.

Question put and agreed to.