Back in the 80’s when nobody had heard of the internet and Gary Lineker didn’t know what a bag of crisps looked like. Football was mainly played on a Saturday afternoon and kicked off at 3pm. Rugby league was traditionally played on a Sunday. With Speedway raced most nights of the week with each club having their own race night and all was well in the world of sport.
Then on 5th February 1989 a little known company called Sky launched its Television network onto the TV airwaves and the decline of British sport began. To begin with things didn’t go well for this young broadcaster and by the end of 1990 it had been forced to merge with its main rival BSB who were also struggling in a bid to survive. But this set back didn’t put Sky off its ambitions of ruling the TV airwaves when it came to sport.
When the top flight of English football broke away from the Football League thanks in part to the promise of higher TV payments From Greg Dyke and ITV Sky saw its chance and took it. Bidding a massive £304 million, it beat ITV and in doing so football was removed from free to air TV and put on Sky Sports which promptly became a subscription channel.
But in taking the money football forgot the golden rule
“Those with the gold make the rules”
With a large TV schedule to fill Sky soon began demanding value for its money and the result was the weekly ritual of Saturday afternoon football through out the country became a thing of the past as games began to be played at other nights of the week. Kick off times were moved to fit Sky’s needs, and with the promise of even bigger payments for TV rights every 5 years the top flight of football lost political control of the game. But the decline didn’t stop there. With player power growing ever stronger since the mid 70’s thanks to Jimmy Hill,the top sportsmen began to demand even bigger salaries until it came to a point the top clubs have to make sure they reach the later rounds of the big tournaments and the TV rights money that comes with it just to pay the wage bill of the players that get them there. At the same time those clubs that fall out of the top tier end up struggling finically and selling their best players just to stay in business
Having witnessed this downward spiral you’d have thought other sports would have been more careful in their dealings with Sky. But no the promise of instant wealth for the big clubs is too tempting and one by one sports have queued up to take Sky’s money. All giving up on their traditions, lower league clubs and fan base just to pander to Sky
Rugby league’s top division went from being a winter sport to a summer sport (How anybody can call February and March summer is beyond me) and changed club names to give them more razzmatazz in an attempt please the broadcaster. Just so Sky had something to show during footballs closed season. Sky even proposed that some clubs merged to form regional teams with the result that clubs like Hull, Hull K R , Castleford, Wakefield trinity, Warrington and Widnes would be lost forever. But this idea was so unpopular with the fans it was dropped. But as you witness the sceptical of a largely empty stadium on the televised Thursday night match, you have to ask yourself what good did taking Sky’s money do for the sport as a whole.
So when it came speedways turn to suckle at Sky’s teat you’d have thought the powers that be would have been a little more careful. But no once again the lure of Sky’s money was too much and speedway as made the same mistakes as every other sport that signed the deal with the devil that is Sky. The top clubs braking away to form their own league, tradition nights changed, top sportsmen demanding even higher wages. These things sound all too familiar?
Speedway is facing major problems yet the proof that these woes faced the sport if they signed the deal with Sky was there for all to see. I accept that speedway was in decline long before Sky came onto the scene and this decline can be traced back to the 50’s and the advent of the Entertainment tax. But it can’t be denied that the situation as got worst since the TV deal was signed. And as we moan the closure of yet another track we have to ask ourselves 2 questions
How many other sports in this country will go the same way as speedway thanks to the lure of big money from Sky and BT Sports?
And looking back was the original deal really worth it?