The impact of a sport accepting money for TV rights requires “very careful consideration” from a public policy point of view, the Attorney General has told a conference of sport law specialists.
When sports are confined to private, paid-for television services, they become for “the privileged few”, Rossa Fanning said.
“Given that sport, rather than religion, is now the opium of the people, I do think that, from a public policy point of view, very careful consideration needs to be given to the countervailing considerations that arise when a sport accepts money for rights which results in fewer people being able to follow that sport.”
He made the remarks on Friday when closing the annual conference in Dublin of the Sports Law Bar Association Conference, on the theme Fair Play, Fair Sport.
A known tennis fan and a former Davis Cup judge, Mr Fanning noted the UK government had in the 1990s compiled a list of events of national importance and cultural significance that could only be broadcast on certain free-to-air and free to all TV channels. That list, known as the crown jewels, was put on a statutory footing and includes events such as the Wimbledon Championships, the FA Cup final and the Grand National.
In Ireland, the Broadcasting Act 1996 also empowers the relevant minister to designate events of major importance to society, he noted.
Wimbledon, he said, is the world’s premier tennis tournament, it was streamed more than 53 million times in 2023 on the BBC iPlayer and is the only Association of Tennis Professionals-level tennis that is not available through a subscription service or on a device.
That such an event has a legal mandate to be kept free to air, rather than being put behind “a highly profitable paywall”, can have very significant effects, he said.
Tests played by the England men’s cricket team were originally among the crown jewels but the cricket association lobbied for the removal of that designation in the mid-2000s, which initially enhanced incomes but reduced the profile of the team and of cricket more generally, he said.
The television audience for golf has “shrunk enormously” as there is now virtually no golf available on free-to-air television, he added.
“There is, I think, a lesson to be drawn from this,” Mr Fanning said.
Rather than “cashing in on short term and more lucrative” offerings of commercial TV, Wimbledon has, in collaboration with the UK government, prioritised its long-term reputation and brand and taken the view that making it available as a free-to-air product will in the long term pay off.
That approach explains why, in contrast to the “amazing global profile” on Wimbledon, tennis as a global product is in “a mess” and relatively hard to access, he said.
Wimbledon’s approach is “a good example of an intelligent policy facilitated by clear legal rules”, rules which have enabled a wide and diverse base of people to become tennis fans, he said.
When that is compared to golf, cricket, darts and many other sports, it can be seen the more they are confined to private, paid-for television services, “the more the audiences shrink, both in volume and diversity”, he said.
“These sports become for the privileged few, rather than the enthusiastic many, for whom subscription television services are an unaffordable economic luxury.”
Earlier, during a discussion on governance in sport, Kevin Hoy, a solicitor and a board member of Sport Ireland, said he has witnessed “outrageous” verbal abuse of female teenage umpires as young as 16, mainly by older male spectators.
The level of sideline abuse of referees and match umpires across many sports reflects “a much wider societal problem”, he said.
Sport Ireland had revised and updated its codes of behaviour but the problem is not with codes, it is on the playing pitches, he said. The various sporting bodies can only discipline members or impose sanctions on clubs over failure to control members and the law on assault can apply but the real problem is what is happening in society, he said.