How TV Has Changed Sport

September 6, 2021Football Standard

TV has, without a doubt, changed sport in a number of ways. Since the first live televised sporting event, Bunny Austin vs George Rogers at Wimbledon in 1937, television has influence sports more and more. From the more simple effects, such as greater exposure and wider audiences, to more complex issues like the media’s finances and politics dictating the very future of some sports, TV has had, and continues to have, an effect on the games we love.


TV Broadcast Deals


Live sport, and specifically football in the UK, was rarely shown live on TV until the 1980s when the BBC and ITV struck a deal worth £2.6m to screen ten live games per season between them. Taking inspiration from US sports teams benefitting from big TV deals, First Division football teams began to agitate for more. Enter BSKYB. In 1992 Sky Sports paid an unprecedented £304m to acquire the rights for a new competition, the Premier League. The money pumped into football in order to show it regularly on tv completely changed the game at the highest level. Transfer fees, stadium and facility upgrades, and high wages have made the Premier League the most attractive place for the best players in the world. The most recent Premier League TV deal is worth £4.8bn. The more money means the best players and the best teams and, as such, it is almost inarguable to suggest that TV money has fundamentally changed football.


Restricted Access


The downside to subscription TV models is that live sport is seen by fewer and fewer people. There is an element of gatekeeping to a lot of sports and sports coverage. Cricket is a leading example of this; since leaving Channel 4 after the historic Ashes 2005 series, England cricket matches have been exclusively on Sky Sports. Sky have put a lot of money into cricket, as they had with football. However, cricket participation is down, and although the BBC struck a deal to show some T20 cricket, BBC sport advisor Neil Brand was pessimistic about a permanent switch to free-to-air, saying “once there is competition between paid and free-to-air there is only one winner, which is paid TV because they will offer much greater sums than us and ITV can afford.”


This is mirrored in Champions League coverage, which has been exclusive to BT since 2015 in a deal worth £1.2bn. Despite being the biggest tournament in club football, viewing figures remain low behind the paywall. The 2021 final, between Chelsea and Manchester City, had 4.8 million TV viewers, less than a third of those that watched Liverpool’s 2005 triumph live on free to air ITV. TV companies having control of how much to charge to watch the marquee club football competition affects access to the best European sides, as well as champions league betting. Football Italia, on free-to-air Channel 4 in the 1990s, allowed the entire UK to see the best that European football had to offer, and the cult tv show is still fondly remembered today.


Video Assistant Referees


Modern sports analysis is also vastly different due to TV. The sheer number of cameras at live sporting events mean every single movement is covered. This allows professional teams to pore over footage of matches looking to gain an advantage over their rivals. Perhaps the biggest modern influence of TV on modern sport is VAR (video assistant referees). Video assistance for the officials is called different things in each sport and has made a huge change to the way all sports are played, watched, and officiated. The TMO in rugby, DRS system in cricket, and VAR in football exist because of TV. Whether correct or incorrect, a referee or umpire’s decision was once final; thanks to the influence of TV, that is no longer the case. The merits and pitfalls of video assistance have been analysed repeatedly. The crux of the matter seems to be: are increased correct decisions worth disruptions, rule changes, and time delays? Sports fans are often traditionalists and critics of VAR are vociferous.





The old adage of “if you can see it, you can be it” applies to TV coverage of sport. Accessible sport, often free-to-air, can boost interest and participation. The London 2012 Olympics was live on the BBC, and over 90% of the UK tuned in to the coverage. As a result, at the subsequent Rio and Tokyo Olympics, Team GB finished 2nd and 4th on the medal tables, respectively. There are multiple contributory factors of course, but any and all events being free to watch is clearly one of them. This led to controversy when the BBC lost some of the rights to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.



During the COVID-19 pandemic, fans were not permitted at live events. TV stepped in and became the sole prism through which fans could watch their favourite teams and sports. TV companies increased coverage, analysis, and also added fan effects in an effort to enhance proceedings. With almost total control over coverage, TV held the cards in creating the angle and the story around the game. In relation to this, TV bringing more and more live sport to more and more people put the players under increased pressure. Fame and fortune are seen as compensation for this of course, but abuse of sporting stars in the modern world has increased exponentially. After the Euro 2020 final, which garnered over 30 million viewers at its peak, England’s black players were subjected to horrific racist abuse. The spotlight of TV has both positive and negative effects on the world of sport.

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