The likes of Dina Asher-Smith will be in action this weekend in Manchester
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.
Cash-strapped UK Athletics looking after own interests but fans and athletes lose out
Owing to a Covid-decimated campaign, last summer’s British Championships were almost certainly the weakest standard seen for many years. Despite that, coverage of Friday night’s action on BBC2 peaked at 1.4 million viewers – more than BBC1 and ITV managed at the same time.
Interest in athletics – like most other sports – is declining as it battles to stay relevant in a changing world, but the numbers from last year prove people still love to watch what is traditionally the showpiece Olympic sport.
With the Tokyo Games less than a month away, this weekend in Manchester is the most important competition of the year for British athletes. The stakes could not be higher.
For the athletes involved and all the sport’s fans, it is incredibly disappointing that it will not be on television in any capacity.
You can certainly understand why UK Athletics is making a stand in refusing to give away its product for free or at a financial loss. The governing body is in a perilous financial state and needs to create demand so it can generate income to aid the sport’s long-term future.
But turning down an offer to have it live-streamed in some capacity on the BBC platforms does feel a bit like cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Ultimately, it is the athletes and fans who suffer most, and that is a real shame.