MEDIA FORUM: Has ITV lost its thirst for major sporting events?

Should advertisers be concerned about ITV's long-term commitment to broadcasting sport, especially football? Alasdair Reid investigates.

The other week, on The Premiership (ITV's version of Match of the Day), Des Lynam was wondering aloud about whether he should shave off his moustache. Now that really would be the end of an era.

Lynam is a very British institution, and his signing by ITV as it surged back on to the high ground, where sport was concerned at least, was a potent signal of its intent.

But, these days, Lynam probably has more on his mind than mere face furniture - arguably, he faces a future of diminishing returns unless he contemplates some sort of radical departure.

This is the last season of ITV's hold on the Saturday evening football highlights package - and we'll no longer have to struggle to recall what the programme is called because next season it will be back at the Beeb and presumably will be called Match of the Day once more. This in itself is instructive - ITV didn't even manage to hold on to the property long enough to establish a strong brand for its programming.

And this season sees ITV having to share Champions League coverage for the first time. It will have the pick of the matches each week but Sky will offer access to a greater number of matches. ITV still has sport other than football - premium audience stuff such as Formula 1 racing and the Rugby World Cup - but should advertisers be worried about its long-term commitment to sport?

Graham Duff, the chief executive of Granada Enterprises, points to the big picture and the network's commitment, not just to the Rugby World Cup (starting soon), but also the major international football tournaments, Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "In general terms, if the question is whether ITV is still interested in major sporting events, the answer is unequivocally yes," he insists.

And Duff points out that the Formula 1 coverage is doing rather nicely too - last season, the championship was merely a procession led by the unbeatable Michael Schumacher but things have picked up. "Formula 1 has been rejuvenated as a competition this year and the championship has been a close race with a number of different people competing. As a consequence, audiences have remained strong. As for the Champions League deal, the way in which the rights have been packaged meant that there could be no exclusivity any more. In fact, we were very pleased at the outcome because we got exactly what we wanted. The bid was appropriate. It fits with ITV's approach to sport, which is to have key live events. The questions we ask are about what an event will add to the channel, whether it's what advertisers want and whether it's important to pay the right price for it."

But surely the Premier League has value as a flagship for ITV's sports offerings. European football may be more glamorous but the domestic league is closer to the hearts of the UK audience.

How does Mike McGough, the general manager of Busch Media Group, see it? "Whatever happens with ITV, if it's losing something, it generally means that another broadcaster is picking up something. If some of the Champions' League moves from ITV to Sky, we are happy to work with Sky. It's not something that unduly concerns us," he says.

Ben Wells, a football consultant at the sports sponsorship agency Redmandarin, agrees that ITV managers won't lose too much sleep over the fact that this is their last Premier League season. "It didn't really work for them," he says. "It performed woefully in its early peak slot and didn't do much at 10.30pm either. I think it was getting about half the audience Match of the Day used to get."

Wells adds: "What has happened to the Champions League is a natural progression because Uefa wants at least one game a week to be free to air and the Sky coverage will allow more access to fans of clubs other than Arsenal and Manchester United. In the past, ITV has been pretty good at getting it right in terms of the games it's chosen and has pulled in decent audiences. I don't think that will change and I don't think Sky's coverage will alter that."

The irony is that some shirt sponsors will actually prefer the highlights to be on the BBC. The ratings will be higher and the whole environment will be classier, they reckon.

John Overend, the investment director of PHD, argues that from ITV's point of view, the Premiership isn't a hugely important asset. He states: "I think the Champions League is more important and, from an advertiser point of view, it's important it remains on an advertising platform, preferably ITV, because it goes to 100 per cent of the population as opposed to Sky, which goes to 50 per cent."

He does agree that some sports-related advertisers may be less than happy that the Premiership is going from ITV but he says that you can never lose sight of the fact that ITV is a large channel pursuing a mass-market audience. "Football has a big audience, but not as large as the audience that ITV needs on a Saturday. ITV's problem was that it forgot that at the time (it originally bought the rights)."

Following Liverpool's failure to qualify for this season's tournament, Evertonian Chris Hayward, the head of TV at ZenithOptimedia, may be watching more Champions' League football this season. "For the foreseeable future, ITV will remain a major deliverer of audiences, not just in sports. Look at its audience of 12 million for the Manchester United versus Real Madrid match last season, compared with the sorts of audiences that Sky delivers for football. I didn't think the Premier League situation signals a lack of interest in football at ITV. But they're now in a complicated situation.

Sky is now seen as the main broadcaster of sport and that's not going to go away. Meanwhile, the BBC has a large pot of money and it is accountable to no-one. So, given Greg Dyke's well-known interest in sport, it should have come as no surprise when the BBC ensured it got involved in the Premier League again."

Hayward believes that, in the past, ITV was very poor at calculating the value of rights such as the Premiership highlights - last time around there were too many people involved who just didn't know enough to make a good decision. So they bid too much and then never got the onscreen package right. Now, given all that's happened over the past few years, including the collapse of ITV Digital, they are able to take a more considered approach to the worth of a property.

"European football is not the be-all and end-all, but ITV is still there. Now it must make sure that it makes the most of the sport it does have - not just the football but Formula 1 and rugby too," he concludes.

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