Setback for UK Athletics as BBC balks at new £3m TV rights deal

Exclusive by Sean Ingle
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: David Klein/Reuters</span>
Photograph: David Klein/Reuters

UK Athletics is facing a fresh crisis over the renewal of its £3m-a-year TV deal with the BBC which runs out this summer, the Guardian has learned.

Insiders fear the BBC is only willing to pay a fraction of what it currently pays for the rights for elite athletics in the UK – which includes two Diamond League meetings, the British championships and the indoor grand prix – because of the declining popularity of the sport. That could put further financial pressure on UK Athletics, whose reserves have dropped from more than £4.5m in 2016 to £2.8m last year.

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Sources fear the BBC holds all the bargaining chips in the negotiations because UK Athletics has been rocked by a series of crises and poor performances, and is now the subject of an unprecedented UK Sport review.

While the current BBC deal, agreed in 2013, was the result of lengthy but fruitful talks, it is understood that nowhere near as much progress has been made this time round.

UK Athletics’ bargaining position has not been helped by the absence of a chief executive for the past 17 months after Niels de Vos, who negotiated the current deal, moved on. However sources say the organisation was slow to act – much to the surprise of the BBC, which not only pays UK Athletics £3m in rights fees but also, unusually, pays its own production costs.

Apart from brief spells with ITV and Channel 4 in the 80s and 90s, the BBC has been UK Athletics’ main broadcast partner for the past four decades. However a spokesperson for the sport left open the possibility that this might change.

While insisting UK Athletics had made “good progress in our discussions with a number of potential broadcast partners including the BBC”, the spokesperson told the Guardian major events do “not need to be exclusive to one provider and this is where more options are becoming available to us with the best levels of financial return”.

The organisation also believes that World Athletics’ new 10-year deal with the Chinese broadcaster Wanda will help boost its finances.

Meanwhile Frank Dick, the British Athletics director of coaching between 1979 and 1994, during the golden age of the sport, has told the Guardian he believes UK Sport has received “a pretty shoddy return on investment” from UKA since lottery funding began in 1997.

UK Athletics has been given more than £110m to fund elite athletics over the past 23 years but Dick, who also guided Daley Thompson to successive Olympic decathlon gold medals in 1980 and 1984 and recently worked with the England rugby team, said track and field had not capitalised on that support because of a lack of leadership and a series of poor decisions.

“There has to be a strong strategic vision, over a four-year Olympic cycle, and I don’t think there is one,” said Dick. “I have had the enormous privilege of working with Eddie Jones and when you sit down with these guys, they almost know what they want to do every day between now and 21 October 2023, when the Rugby World Cup final takes place. It is a four-year process. Too often athletics thinks in the short term.”

World champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
World champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Dick also cited neglect of grassroots coaching as being another significant factor in Britain failing to hit its medal target at last year’s world championships in Doha – and said the fact that so many top athletes, including Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Andy Pozzi, Matthew Hudson-Smith and Adam Gemili go abroad to train speaks volumes.

“There has been a serious malaise in how they look after the coaches,” he said. “I honestly believe that we have world-class coaches and athletes out there. But for these people to fulfil this potential they have to be given the right level of support.”

Dick, who joins two other UK Athletics performance directors, Malcolm Arnold and Max Jones, in being critical of the organisation in the past month, said the sport has to go back to basics. “You have to get the culture right, you have to get the processes right and you have to get the people right,” he added. “UK Athletics needs to drill into these three areas and produce the strategy not just for how we will get our medals in 2020 and 2024 but how we will sustain it in the future.”

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