Competition adds a touch of spice

OWEN GIBSON, in The Guardian, interviews Sky Sports’ Vic Wakeling

One of the walnut encased television screens dominating Vic Wakeling’s office is flickering with footage of FA chief executive Brian Barwick. The veteran Sky Sports chief is doing his absolute best to give me his undivided attention but his eyes can’t help wandering back to the bank of sport until he alights on a means of linking it to my questions.

“When ITV launched their sports channel back in 2001 Brian Barwick was head of ITV Sport and he said there would be some nervous people down the road in Osterley,” he recalls evenly in a soft Geordie accent. “We weren’t nervous, we were confident in our business plan. Confident of our ability and experience in maintaining a subscriber base. So it proved. It’s exactly the same now.”

At the weekend, Liverpool played Manchester United and Arsenal took on Chelsea in one of the high-octane, hugely hyped “Grand Slam Sundays” at which Sky excels. The well-trodden story of Sky and the Premier League, and with it football’s post-Hillsborough, post-Fever Pitch transformation, is a symbiotic one. Each has boomed off the back of the other. For supporters, there is more football on television than ever – and they are paying more for it than ever. Sky Sports now has more than 6 million subscribers, most paying more than £34 a month for their pay TV package.

So for a new player to snatch a portion of rights to the blue riband offering on which Sky Sports built its business, following intervention from European regulatory authorities, must have been something of a culture shock, for all Wakeling’s protestations.

Setanta has carefully positioned itself as David to Sky’s Goliath during 2007, offering a range of top-level sport for a tenner a month with no ongoing contract. Its yellow and black colour scheme has become a familiar sight at football grounds and, while its Des Lynam ad campaign might lack subtlety, it does stick in the mind of its target audience. It recently passed the 1 million milestone – taking its overall subscriber base to more than 3 million – thanks to its deal with Virgin Media.

But the unflappable Wakeling, celebrating 14 years in the job this month and welcoming his sixth boss as financial director Jeremy Darroch steps up to replace James Murdoch as chief executive, is unmoved: “There was no trepidation, because you’ve made your plans. We knew we’d get the matches that really matter. We always felt that would give us an edge.”

Just as the Premier League is more competitive than ever, so the sports rights market has returned to levels of aggressive growth that analysts predicted were gone for good following the dotcom bust and the collapse of ITV Digital. Vital as a subscription driver, sport’s importance to terrestrial channels has also increased as they find it ever more difficult to attract mass audiences. It also tends to appeal to the young male viewers they crave.

After a period of equilibrium during which Sky and its terrestrial rivals appeared to have settled into a comfortable co-existence, the arrival of Setanta has thrown everything into the air. Michael Grade’s ITV teamed up with the Irish broadcaster to snatch the rights to the FA Cup and England internationals from the BBC and Sky. Meanwhile, Setanta has tried to lay its hands on everything from the US PGA Golf and Joe Calzaghe’s fights (successfully in both cases) to rugby’s Super League and the Football League (in which it failed but doubled the price for Sky).

ENTRIES OPEN NOW FOR BRITISH SPORTS JOURNALISM AWARDS – click here for details and entry forms

In the Premier League auction, Sky paid £1.3bn for 92 games a year to Setanta’s £392m for 46 but has first pick of the biggest games. Setanta suffers because it has worse games and can’t show some of the biggest teams on Monday night or Saturday teatime because of European football and police restrictions. Sky has boxed clever by strategically leaving it with some games that it knows Setanta won’t be able to show for those reasons, leading the Irish challenger to complain privately that the scales are tilted against it.

“We’ve had competition for years, it’s come and gone. We welcome it, it adds a bit of spice to the daily routine,” says Wakeling, who has perfected a balance of enthusiasm and seen-it-all-before insouciance. You can see how he has won so many key rights negotiations. “This is our 16th season of picking matches. There may have been issues at the other end, I’m not aware of them.”

As Setanta steps up its assault, adding FA Cup and England matches from next August and promising more football than Sky, the competition will grow. “People say we stifle competition, we don’t,” says Wakeling, squeezing a pink stress ball and alluding to the ongoing Ofcom review of the pay TV market. “It’s great to have it, in everything you do you say to your people: be better than the BBC, be better than Setanta, be better than ITV.”

Still, he can’t resist a small dig at his rival, referring to the rumours that continue to sweep the City that its rights spree was a precursor to a sale by its Irish founders and their venture capital backers: “You wonder if as a long-term business it all adds up.”

This increased competition has put him toe to toe with Setanta director of sport Trevor East, his former No 2 at Sky, and Mark Sharman, another former Sky executive who is now director of news and sport at ITV. The grey-haired triumvirate, among the most powerful men in British sport, first crossed paths when they worked in the Midlands during the 1970s. Wakeling insists, with a hint of an edge to his voice, that it remains a friendly rivalry.

“Trevor and I parted as friends here, he needed a new challenge. We go back too far. Mark and I worked together on the Birmingham Evening Mail. Trevor and I were together in Derby and then he was in television in Birmingham when I was at the Birmingham Evening Mail and so on,” says Wakeling, who began his newspaper career at the Blaydon Courier and later worked at the Observer and the Express.

He insists he feels no guilt when he picks up today’s papers to read about footballers labelling a £50,000 a week pay packet an insult or the latest lapdancing club misdemeanour of the England captain. Does he ever feel he’s helped create a monster?

“I certainly wouldn’t call it a monster. While it’s packing them in and while it’s in demand worldwide – because of the standard of football, the stadiums and the atmosphere, as well as the standard of our coverage – it’s only going one way. We’re now sitting in marvellous stadiums, the facilities are marvellous and the entertainment is great. If players are earning what the market said, good luck to them.”

But he adds there may be a “long-term issue” about players coming through in a Premier League dominated by foreign talent and urges the football authorities to make sure some of the TV riches “return to the grass roots”.

He is unapologetic about the other charge levelled at Sky, most recently over the Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather bout, that it is guilty of over-hyping sports to the extent that it loses all critical perspective. “We’re accused of over-hyping every event. I don’t think that’s true. We’re sports fans. We turn up with the same anticipation and high hopes to every sporting event. We’re pleased to be there.”

Even its staunchest critics no longer dare argue that Sky hasn’t changed the face of sports broadcasting. From its technical innovations – PlayerCam, split screen Champions League coverage, delayed Football First highlights, high definition – to its fast-paced editorial style and the sheer breadth and depth of its coverage, it has not only revolutionised sports broadcasting but sport itself. And in Sky Sports News, Soccer AM and Soccer Saturday alone it has created new genres.

In capturing England’s home cricket matches exclusively in 2005, Wakeling roused some of the last representatives of anti-Sky sentiment and caused a furious backlash that included questions in the House, Commons inquiries and a concerted campaign against the decision. But Wakeling declares himself “delighted” with the coverage and the ratings, if not always England’s performances on the pitch. The contract will be back out to tender at some point next year, and Wakeling says Sky will bid again. He is also confident of recapturing the vital Champions League contract.

In 1996, Wakeling and four other besuited Sky executives surprised punters in a Coventry boozer by leaping around to celebrate a pivotal rights deal. He said he still gets the same “buzz” from a big deal but that the business as a whole is a lot more complex now. Still, you sense he misses those buccaneering days a little.

“There has always been a knack of having the right people, in the right place, at the right time. Of course it’s changed since Sam Chisholm. It was a very basic business compared to today,” he says. “Sam was a prickly character, to put it nicely. But I’ve had six bosses and I’ve got on with them all. I’ve had backing to be able to do my job.”

Sky now has four full-time sports channels, plus Sky Sports News. Wakeling has worked to broaden its sports portfolio, experimenting with everything from equestrian events to sailing, darts to American Football. As James Murdoch, who he says innately understands the importance of sport and has invested in a new studio complex that will open in 2010, makes way, Wakeling jokes it is a case of “Geordies rule” as fellow Newcastle United fan Darroch takes the reins.

Wakeling prefers watching sport to the media circuit. He spent just 30 minutes at the Sky Christmas party last week because he wanted to get back to his Hampshire home to watch the Champions League. Such is his enthusiasm for sport, you barely need to ask what drives him. Recalling his satisfaction at a job well done covering the Hatton fight and gesturing at the banks of young producers outside his door, he says: “They have a passion, they’re having fun. And it’s the same for me.”

Read this article in full by clicking here

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form