MEDIA FORUM: Is sport no longer the driving force behind Sky? - Sky Sports has made a huge impact on the way we watch television and has revitalised British sport. But is its role changing?

Terrestrial television channels can still claim to turn out

products of unrivalled excellence in one or two programming sectors

Live sport probably isn't one of them. But documentaries about

sport ... now, that might be a different matter. Take, for instance, the

recent series of programmes on BBC2, which brought home the extent to

which Sky has been responsible for utterly transforming sport (and one

sport in particular, of course) in Britain.



Sky Sports has had a huge impact on the lives of British sports

fans.



Public service broadcasters (and, to a certain extent, ITV has to be

included in this) have always tried to believe (and make us believe) in

the romance of the amateur, the virtue of the Corinthian spirit and a

mythology of heroic traditions woven into the very fabric of the nation.

They've always (and in this respect, the Paul Whitehouse Fast Show

'jumpers for goalposts' parodies were always spot on) taken their

rhythms and cadences from a black and white era. Their commentary and

analysis has always aspired to the fruity resonance of long wave radio.

Whereas sports fans tend to be addicted to something quite different -

something that Sky knows inside out.



Sky Sports, ten years old this week, has much to be proud of. But, a

decade on, is its role changing - especially from a commercial

standpoint?



As the BBC documentary pointed out, live football was an absolutely

essential driver of dish sales in the early days of satellite TV. That's

surely no longer the case. Commercials punting Sky Digital are as likely

to feature the availability of films or documentaries these days. And

Sky is no longer the only home of live sporting excellence - ITV, for

instance, has woken up and begun smelling the liniment.



Mark Wood, Sky's commercial director and a keen golf fan, argues that

the growth in digital has given advertisers the opportunity to target

more effectively as well as being able to reach the core sports

audiences.



He comments: 'It has enabled them to develop interactive services which

showcase brands and products even more dynamically. It is an interactive

revolution that began - guess where? - with Sky Sports Extra two years

ago. Indeed, sport has led all our major firsts, and continues to do so

- first advertiser-supplied programme, first title sponsorship, first

pay-per-view event, first interactive programme, first online gambling.

And it remains a key ratings driver.'



Wood also points out that, as digital has grown, so terrestrial

broadcasters' audience shares have declined. Sport is important but not

exclusively important. 'Sky's own audience shares, across its

entertainment, film, news and sport channels, remain strong. So while

Bart and Beckham still drive millions of people to Sky, so also,

nowadays, do movie blockbusters, TV biographies and the lovely Buffy,'

he states.



Nick Theakstone, the deputy managing director of MediaVest and a Chelsea

fan, says that the figures speak for themselves - if you go back three

years and look at ratings in satellite homes for 16- to 34-year-old men

during the first quarter of 1998, 23 per cent were sports ratings. In

the first quarter of this year the equivalent figure was 13.9 per

cent.



He states: 'I'm not saying sport isn't important. There's absolutely no

doubt that it is important. One measure of that is the fact that if a

channel other than Sky manages to get the rights to a big sporting

event, then it's front page news. In general, sport still says a lot

about a channel's image and ambitions. It's still a reason to get Sky

Digital or to keep it if you've already got it.



'There's lots of must-see sport coming up. It's not all football either

- there's the Lions Tour, some cricket, the Ryder Cup golf. And if Sky

didn't have football, you could argue that its whole proposition would

be significantly diminished. It's still the driving force, even if the

ratings aren't what they were proportionately. Football helps satellite

maintain its young profile. Penetration of satellite as a whole is 42

per cent but among young adults it will be more like 55 per cent. But my

point is that within that universe, sport isn't as important. Not so

long ago, if you watched satellite you watched bagloads of sport. That's

not so much the case now. There's other stuff to watch.'



Simon Francis, the director of Futures at MindShare, Sky's biggest

customer, is well placed to comment. He points out that during 2000, Sky

Sports delivered just over 30 per cent of total Sky impacts, which by

any measure makes it a very important part of the mix. 'In 1999, 75 per

cent of all Sky subscribers subscribed to Sports. And although for Sky

on cable the figure is lower - 56 per cent - and those percentages are

projected to fall over time as penetration increases, it should be noted

that the estimated number of total homes receiving Sky Sports will rise

from 3.8 million in 1999 to 6.3 million in 2006. Sky Sports will

continue to be important in driving subscriptions.'



Which is where Sky makes most of its money, after all. The only possible

snag, Francis adds, is the fact that the cost of major sporting rights

continues to escalate. But how about its attractions for

advertisers?



Francis argues that it remains immensely valuable because of its profile

with men aged 18 years and over, especially given the dearth of this

audience on other platforms. He adds: 'It has sold its wares well -

adopting flexible selling approaches and built up client relationships.

The strongest example is that of Ford (which sponsors the big Premier

League games at the weekend as well as highlights packages).'



The MindShare Ford deal is a great example of how Sky has utilised its

rights to offer an advertiser a saleable benefit. So too is Yorkie's

sponsorship of Soccer AM and even some of the smaller shows have

attracted eager sponsors - for example, Nike sponsors Good Morning

Sports Fans on SkySports.com.



Is Sky Sports really still an attractive environment for advertisers?

Absolutely, John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of Glaxo

SmithKline and a long-suffering Queens Park Rangers fan, confirms: 'For

brands such as Lucozade Sport it fulfils the ideal of reaching the right

consumers in the right frame of mind. I'd agree that most sports fans

probably subscribe already but it still has a role to play. It's not the

only place to go for a live sports environment these days and that's a

good thing, but my perception is that its football coverage is still

very strong. In terms of total programming hours it may not be the most

important strand but I still think that the football audience is the

most important audience and it's still a big driver of subscriptions.'



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