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Imagine the scene. It’s June 2018 and the World Cup finals are getting under way. England, the hosts, have played their opening match – an unconvincing 1-1 draw with Norway which has led the press to question the tactics of their manager, Lord Beckham of Leytonstone – but optimism is still high. The nation settles down for the second game, being played between the two other teams in England’s group. Football, The Sun proclaims, has come home, but something isn’t right. Only ten million of the twenty-three million households in the UK can watch the match at home, because most of the matches that don’t involve England have been bought by Sky TV and ESPN.

If this scenario sounds like some sort of nightmare, it’s a good job that England didn’t win the bidding rights to the 2018 World Cup if an article in this week’s edition of Broadcast magazine is to be believed. Broadcast has claimed that the government promised FIFA that it would waive the “Crown Jewels” agreement (which lists the World Cup finals as one of the sporting events that can only be shown on what is now called “free-to-air” – which may also be known as “terrestrial” – television) as part of the bidding process for the finals. Moreover, this concession, which would have had a seriously detrimental effect for millions of people that may have been looking forward to watching the tournament on the television. Moreover, the article claims that the BBC and ITV were unaware of this state of affairs until after the England bid sank like a stone. Somewhat ironically, the article is behind Broadcast’s paywall, but we can get the gist of it from this, which was posted on the Digital Spy broadcasting forum:

The BBC and ITV were set to join forces to battle a secret government decision that could have handed Sky the chance to air the 2018 World Cup. It has emerged that the government guaranteed to football body Fifa that it was prepared to waive listed events regulations for the 2018 tournament as part of England’s failed bid to host the event. Under current rules, the World Cup is on the Crown Jewels TV sports list, meaning that it can only be shown live on free-to-air television. However, at the request of Fifa, England’s 2018 World Cup bid document contained a promise to allow pay-TV companies, such as BSkyB and Disney-owned ESPN, the chance to bid for rights. Neither the BBC nor ITV – which traditionally share coverage of the World Cup – were aware of the guarantee at the time of England’s bid.

As it stands, around 9m of the 22m households in the UK have access to Sky – around 40% of the population. Apparently, under this proposal England’s matches would have been ring-fenced (which raises some interesting questions about what might have happened had Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland qualified in itself), but all other matches would have been a free-for-all. It is true that Sky may have chosen to win the rights and put the matches on Sky News on Sky 3 (which are both available on Freeview, Virgin Media and BT Vision), but it seems unlikely that Sky would pay big money to buy these rights and not put them behind the televisual version of their paywall on Sky Sports.

It is worth, at this point, putting the case for the World Cup remaining a free-to-air event. Regardless of what we may think as a point of principle, we are probably now too far down the road to roll back the years and remove Sky TV from the equation of the television rights contracts when it comes to the Premier League. The clubs of that league set their spending on the basis of what they assume will be at best an ever-spiralling revenue stream from television rights and at worst a revenue stream that stabilises at somewhere around the massive amount that is currently being paid. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, there can be little doubt that a significant drop in television revenue could have a ruinous effect on the Premier League.

With the World Cup, however, it’s a different matter. Who, exactly, benefits from the tournament being largely shown behind a paywall? The pay-television companies, for sure, and FIFA, who would be likely to reap considerably greater revenues if the likes of Sky were allowed to bid for them. The sixty-odd per cent of the population without this access, however, would lose the right to watch the whole tournament, and even cable or satellite subscribers chuckling to themselves about it might have the smiles wiped from their faces if their subscription fees were to rise sharply as the broadcasters pushed their prices up in order to recoup the cost of buying the rights in the first place. This is hypothetical, of course, but it could hardly be said to be out of the question.

It is also worth asking the question of, if this is true, why it was not made public while the bidding process was being undertaken? It’s not a party political issue. So far as we know, the Labour Party promised it and there is no evidence to suggest that this was removed once the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power. One might realistically have expected somebody to have tried to  make political capital from in the year of a bitterly fought general election had it been the case. There were plenty of petitions available to sign for people who wanted to “back the bid”, but how many of the people that signed it might have had second thoughts had they known that this concession had been agreed as part of the process? Ultimately, plenty of taxpayers’ money would have been spent upon hosting a World Cup in England. We can take a guess over how many of those people might have felt had they ended up having to pay money to watch it. If the bidding team refused to budge on the matter of the tournament being on free-to-air television in this country, we might also have expected this to have been mentioned somewhere since England lost the bid.

A Google search for one of the key phrases used regarding this issue, that, according to FIFA,  “In terms of TV rights, the current listed-event regulations in the United Kingdom, which adversely affects the free and unrestricted exploitation of media rights, needs to be suspended”, demonstrates that the matter was in the public domain, but it has not been widely reported in the mainstream media in this country that this was yet another of the onerous conditions being imposed on the bidding team for the 2018 World Cup, although the Guardian did touch upon the fact that FIFA seemed unhappy that the crown jewels rulings would affect the amount of money that they could expect from television companies. The Guardian did report in December of 2009, in something of a contradiction of FIFA’s eventual decision, that:

Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa general secretary, and Niclas Ericson, its director of television, told the panel reviewing the issue at the request of the government that it would not insist on the World Cup finals being removed from the list of events protected for free-to-air TV as a prerequisite of England winning the race to host the 2018 tournament.

But the minutes of the meeting between Fifa and the panel, led by the former FA executive director David Davies, reveal that it will insist on “full value” being paid for the rights and insist that pre-contracts with ITV and the BBC are in place before it will consider awarding the 2018 World Cup to England.

So many questions, then, and so few answers, for now. Is the article that appeared in Broadcast Magazine substantiable? If it is, who exactly knew about this and what is their explanation for their absolute silence on the matter? Broadcast is a perfectly respectable publication with a reputation for having excellent inside information on issues relating to broadcasting. It may well have become, broadly speaking, irrelevant in a literal sense when England’s 2018 World Cup finals bid crashed and burned like the Hindenberg (and fairly, might we add), but there is an issue of trust at stake, here. We already know about the concessions made to FIFA during the bidding process (including the confidentiality clauses insisted upon by them), but we deserve an explanation for this story because, if this sort of thing keeps being leaked into the press, we could certainly be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing that couldn’t be agreed to bring the 2018 World Cup to England, regardless of the cost to the rest of us.

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