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This weekend’s British Olympic trials will not be shown on television for the first time this century after the BBC refused to pay for the rights and UK Athletics pulled the plug on suggestions that it might hand over coverage for free.
The Telegraph has learned the BBC declined to put the three-day event on one of its main channels, instead offering to host a live stream on the red button and BBC Sport website. However, the broadcaster said it would not pay any money for the rights or cover full production costs, only offering a partial contribution.
UK Athletics decided against allowing the broadcaster to have the Manchester event for free as it attempts to create financial demand for its products after the expiration last year of its bumper long-term BBC deal that had been worth more than £2million a year.
Instead, the sport’s fans will have to rely on a basic live stream of the trials on the UK Athletics website and YouTube feed if they want to see how the likes of Dina Asher-Smith and Mo Farah fare in attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
Sources suggest the BBC’s refusal to pay the full amount of production costs was a sticking point for UK Athletics, with a potential bill of around £50,000 to upgrade existing production equipment to make it suitable for BBC streaming transmission. Were the coverage to go on one of the BBC’s main channels, the production upgrade would cost closer to £250,000.
“As we were not in receipt of an opportunity to show the Muller British Athletics Championships on a TV channel this year, we have decided to broadcast the event over our own digital platforms,” said a UK Athletics spokesperson.
“We are constantly reviewing our event portfolio and exploring options with partners as we seek to redefine our broadcast products, but it was important, especially in an Olympic and Paralympic year, to show the entire event through our channels rather than partial coverage elsewhere.”
A BBC spokesperson said it did not comment on broadcasting rights deals.
UK Athletics has been unsuccessful in its search for a broadcaster to cover domestic events since its previous BBC deal - which included the two British Diamond League meetings, indoor and outdoor British Championships and one indoor grand prix each year - expired in 2020.
Rather than concentrate solely on domestic action, the BBC has instead turned its attention to global competition by securing a four-year deal for every Diamond League meet.
UK Athletics continues to face significant financial struggles and is desperate to generate income in the form of a new television contract after culling around 25 per cent of staff last year as its financial reserves continue to dwindle.
UK Athletics chief executive defends decision to not give up coverage for free
Jo Coates, UK Athletics chief executive, defended her decision not to give coverage of this weekend’s British Championships and Olympic trials to the BBC for free, insisting not having the event on television for the first time this century provides a chance to “find younger audiences”.
UK Athletics’ decision drew anger from many athletes competing at the Olympic trials in Manchester, with world 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith calling it “disappointing” and world 4x100m champion Chijindu Ujah saying it was “p--- poor”.
Speaking at the first night of competition in Manchester, Coates said: “We want to engage with new audiences so we honestly believe that we need to own our own content and create something that goes out.
“People have said it’s not on TV but it is - it’s on a lot of smart TVs via YouTube. And we think that’s a better way to showcase the sport than it being hidden on the red button.
“As CEO, I don’t want to devalue the sport, and I think giving it away for free devalues the sport.
“We’re on a new journey for the sport, we want to go to new audiences. YouTube is where you’re going to find younger audiences.”
On Asher-Smith’s comments, Coates added: “When any of our athletes come out and make a comment of course we notice it. We would never want our superstars not to feel connected to UK Athletics.”
Competing in front of a crowd of 500 on Friday night, Asher-Smith made light of the cold temperatures and strong headwind to cruise through the 100 metres heats.
With warmer weather forecast for Saturday’s semi-finals and final, Asher-Smith will expect to go far quicker than the 11.28 seconds she clocked to advance as the fastest qualifier, with Daryll Neita and Asha Philip also winning their heats.