Did you see the varsity boat race yesterday on BBC One? Oddly enough, neither did I and neither did anyone else I know. I don’t know who won, don’t care who won and (starts run up for a very old joke) it’s really boring that the same two teams get to the final every single year. I do not know how much it costs the BBC to hold the rights, but however much it is, it’s probably too much.
I know that the annual ding dong between Oxford and Cambridge attracts large audiences although I don’t for the life of me know why. And I know it’s a very old sporting event; a throwback to the days when the graduates of the top two universities ran the country! Oh, wait a minute: they still do today.
I will watch rowing in the Olympics. I will not pretend for one moment that most of the rowers are not from elite schools and that the lumpen proletariat are no more likely to appear in The Big Race than they are to turn up in a Tory cabinet, but they are British and they are usually quite good. I cannot say the same for the boat race.
The biggest furore this year was the choice of presenter, Seann Walsh, who is a comedian (in case you knew; I didn’t) when he said that the crowd watching the boat races was “like Waitrose on Black Friday”. I cannot comment on the actually presenting of the show – Walsh had the former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton alongside – but it certainly got a few people’s backs up. But I thought his joke was quite apt. The varsity boat race is a clash between two groups of upper class sportsmen, watched, I imagine, my upper class viewers. Why would anyone else watch it and where would these viewers shop? To the latter question, I would suggest Waitrose, the place all of us would choose to shop if we were made of money.
That the BBC still has live sport to show us is a miracle in itself. Rupert Murdoch and BT Sport between them have a near monopoly of TV sport. For example, Sky has all the cricket, all four gold majors, both the European and American tours and the Ryder Cup, the vast majority of Premier League football and all the rugby league except the Challenge Cup. This is not a coincidence since Sky spends more on sport than the BBC can spend on all its services put together. So the Beeb is stuck with a bloody boat race and not much else.
The BBC recently did a deal with the cricket authorities to show ‘clips’ of some cricket matches. Not highlights, but clips to be shown in news bulletins. It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but not much.
Highlights will be the way forward for terrestrial channels. Given time, Mr Murdoch will own rights to all TV sport. He will outbid BT Sport and the rest of the opposition for every franchise that comes up and he will beat down the opposition in the same way as his papers crushed the likes of the Independent. He doesn’t like competition, he is richer than God and when he tells politicians to jump they ask how high.
If I was appointed head of the Beeb tomorrow, I’d hand back the boat race rights with immediate effect. Spend whatever money is left on something many of us would love to see, like cricket highlights, maybe even the odd live game.
The boat race merely reminds me of what a class dominated country we still live in, a vision of how far we are from genuine social mobility. That the current prime minister (Cameron), the current and previous deputy prime ministers (Osborne and Clegg), the likely successor to Cameron (Johnson) and the Tory candidate for London Mayor (Goldsmith) are all graduates from our elitist education says it all and the continued media obsession with the boat race suggests that the establishment would like to keep it that way.