The Sky’s The Limit?

“When all else fails, there’s always delusion.” I heard this quote recently (I can’t remember exactly where) and thought it was rather wonderful. It’s so true. When every tactic, strategy and carefully thought out plan has been exhausted and proved ineffective, there’s always a guaranteed fall back. Pretend that everything’s alright and convince all and sundry-yourself included-that your analysis is correct. It’s fool proof. A brilliant coping mechanism that can be applied to any scenario or circumstance.

I thought of the saying when learning of Sky Sports’ latest re-brand. For those who missed it, the traditional Sky Sports channels have been replaced by more bespoke versions-Sky Football, Sky Cricket, Sky F1, Sky Golf and a couple of miscellaneous sports channels. It’s an interesting gimmick and something that’s actually quite novel in this part of the world. One can understand the appeal for those besotted aficionados who can’t get enough of their chosen sport. A potential game changer in every sense of the term. It feels like this is a critical moment for the once unimpeachable Sky Sports brand. Satellite t.v.’s premier sports station is facing stiff and unprecedented competition from ambitious rival BT Sports, who are relentlessly going after Sky in the world of football rights and have just snatched exclusive rights to rugby’s Champions Cup from their more established competitor.

Changed times indeed for Rupert Murdoch’s flagship station. I’m old enough to remember when Sky first emerged as major players in the sports market over 25 years ago. There was widespread dismay in the football world when the young, upstart company- as it was then- secured exclusive rights to the newly formed F.A. Premier League. It was indeed an impressive coup and one that firmly cemented Sky’s reputation as major players in the sports business. And how the t.v. establishment fretted. How would fans cope when deprived of terrestrial coverage of major sporting events? How could the emergent station emulate the charm and experience the Beeb and ITV brought to the biggest sporting occasions?

However, all those unfounded fears and worries ebbed away when Sky’s groundbreaking Premier League coverage commenced in the early ’90s. Armchair fans the world over were quite simply blown away by Sky’s unique and inventive coverage. For not only did Sky do sports coverage bigger, they did it better. It didn’t matter what your sport of interest was, Sky had you covered. Football, rugby, cricket, boxing. Sky slowly and steadily secured the key rights to the events that really mattered and then proceeded to fill their ultra-modern studios with the best pundits each sport had to offer. The formula was simple but it was supremely effective. It wasn’t just that Sky was ahead of the game. It was the game.

We know how it ended, but think of the glory days of Sky Sports with Richard Keys and Andy Gray fronting Sky’s glossy and informative football coverage. But it wasn’t just football that saw Sky push the boundaries. They had the best pundits and analysts across the board-Stuart Barnes in rugby, Barry McGuigan in boxing, David Gower and Ian Botham in cricket. The deep, perceptive analysis was complemented by cutting edge technology that served to enhance and improve the viewer experience beyond anything hitherto seen. So, why the change?

Certainly, from a fans’ perspective, there’s a feeling that Sky has lost its way a little. As well as the fierce competition from the brash BT Sports machine referenced above, Sky is struggling to retain a more fickle, modern audience whose attention span has never been shorter. We’re living in a world full of plentiful distractions and consumers often don’t have the time to absorb t.v. sport in the vast quantities consumed in days gone by. In the era of Netflix, Box Sets and streaming, it’s hard not to see the Sky Sports model as being a little out-of–date.

Sky’s current malaise is illustrated by its muddled and often eccentric rugby coverage. Rugby on Sky used to be magnificent, boasting intelligent, informed analysis by some of the game’s foremost thinkers. Sky still have the best pundits rugby has to offer but they increasingly choose to use them in a very unorthodox fashion. Take the recent Lions tour. With proper analysis increasingly cut short, punters were treated instead to bizarre, scripted monologues from Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell.

You know the sort of thing. These dramatic, rehearsed speeches have been part of the Sky rugby landscape for some time but the Lions series saw these skits taken to a whole new level. Surely there can’t be much demand for these distractions? They’re so unnecessary. Greenwood and Quinnell are both likeable, vastly experienced rugby men and have so much to offer in terms of insight. It’s such a pity that their undoubted talents are being wasted through these annoying sideshows.

Rugby on Sky was once one of my foremost pleasures in life but I find myself increasingly turned off by the direction its coverage is going. I say all this as a confirmed and established fan of Sky. Despite a legion of reasons to do it, I just can’t bring myself to cancel my subscription. In my view, the Sky platform is still light years ahead of its rivals. They are still the leaders and standard bearers in this competitive and dynamic industry. No other channel-BT, Channel 5, ITV-no-one- can hold a candle to Sky in terms of output, quality, production values and the sheer breadth of coverage.

And although not every gimmick works, they are still the innovators. What’s more, while Sky might not be as weighty as it used to be, it’s still the fans’ best bet when looking for informed and clever commentary. Who knows if the re-brand will achieve what the station wants it to, but I, for one, wish them all the best. Sky’s change of emphasis indicates that sport’s premier station has no intention of falling for delusion. It remains to be seen if the changes persuade viewers to keep their remote controls from surfing.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpey

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