Scotland sports fans “let down” and “disadvantaged” by UK broadcasting

It has been a good couple of weeks for Scottish sport, first the mens Football team beat Spain 2-0 and then the Scotland Men’s Curling team won a historic World Cup victory over the weekend, an event which took place at 9 pm UK time and like the football was not televised in Scotland.

It is a fair bet that if Scotland had an independent broadcasting channel, it would have been. Scotland does not regulate its own TV, which is all owned and controlled from south of the Border. It doesn't even have a government-backed channel with the same degree of independence as Wales' S4C. The Welsh language channel does a great job for Wales of showing sports events that are important to the country. 

Scotland football team’s recent two-nil victory over Spain was another historic event that too many fans could not watch -  in that case because it was pay-to-view on an expensive subscription channel. Some adults might have been able to see the game in a pub - but that left football-daft youngsters (and families in rural areas) unable to cheer on the national side. In contrast, England and Wales’ Euro qualifiers are guaranteed free to air on terrestrial channels. 

The Scottish Affairs Select Committee has expressed concern over the way supporters in Scotland are being “disadvantaged” - but the UK Government has indicated it will not be doing anything about this. Because broadcasting is in Westminster’s hands, the Scottish Government can’t level the playing field. 

With independence, Scotland could protect citizens’ rights to watch their national teams.

The Curling World Championships would have been inexpensive and easy to show

Scottish sports journalist Alison Walker who covered the event from Canada for the last 12 days said there should have been TV coverage of the team led by Captain Bruce Mouat - which she said would have been inexpensive and easy to arrange.

She told the National: "The athletes work so hard and are such great people with inspiring stories. They are hugely respected and admired in Canada and to an extent would be in Scotland - if folk knew about it. It’s not about money either. It would’ve cost broadcasters very little to show more of Bruce’s journey.

“The World Curling Federation are the host broadcaster, and the ‘feed’ is offered around the world. Every one of Bruce’s games was available - so I feel the question should be asked of BBC Scotland, BBC Network, STV, Sky Sports. It’s very frustrating.”

The Scotland game was free to watch in Spain

Similarly, the Scotland-Spain football game was free to watch in Spain - and indeed across much of Europe, where governments protect citizens' right to watch their national teams without having to shell out. 

In a cost of living crisis where families are struggling to pay energy bills and put food on the table, it was a sore point that so many were left out in the cold, uniquely unable to share in what should be moments of national pride and celebration. 

Scottish MPs said Scotland fans are being “let down”

MPs on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee recently called for a review of the football situation in a report which concluded:  

“We are firmly of the view that the current lack of opportunities to watch Scottish international football on free-to-air broadcast is letting down fans in Scotland, who are at a disadvantage compared to fans in England and Wales. The UK Government must be more proactive in acknowledging and responding to the frustration this situation is causing in Scotland.”

Yet the UK government refuses to intervene

The Committee said the UK Government should:

“Establish a review to consider options to improve free-to-air access to Scottish international football – potentially including Scotland’s World Cup and European Championship qualifiers to the ‘listed events’ public service broadcasters can more easily bid for.”

But Government Minister for Sport Julia Lopez MP told the Committee that the UK Government has no intention of acting on this.

Lopez disagreed saying it was “up to Scottish rights holders to determine the best balance between ensuring events can be seen by the widest possible audience and securing money to reinvest in grassroots sport”. But the SFA has no say in how the rights to these games are bundled and sold by UEFA. 

UEFA controls the rights and packages them in a way that appeals to big players

In the absence of any legal protection by the UK Government, UEFA completely controls the broadcasting rights for Scotland’s European qualifiers. The distribution is out-sourced to their partners CAA Eleven. 

It is usual practice for distributors of entertainment content to package it in bundles designed to appeal to big broadcasters. These bundles are designed to get content out of the door in the limited window where the distributor has the rights to sell it. Under UEFA’s contracts, these bundles carry with them the legal obligation to show all the games. The Scottish games were auctioned as part of a bundle that would not have been affordable or attractive for a commercial UK broadcaster.  No UK terrestrial broadcaster bid for the rights to show Scotland’s Euro qualifiers. 

The SFA does not have a seat at the table when the rights are packaged and Scotland does not have a government-supported independent broadcaster. 

Welsh fans get to see the games for free - in Welsh

The same company - Viaplay - that bought Scotland’s Euro qualifiers also bought the rights to show Wales’ games - but the Welsh games are also free to view on S4C with Welsh commnentary.  

Scotland does not have any genuinely independent Scotland-based channels (BBC Scotland and BBC Alba are regional channels operated from the BBC in London), but Wales has S4C. Now paid for via the licence fee, S4C was established as an independent channel and still has an independent board

S4C does a good job of getting sports rights for Wales. It can help in negotiations that this is a Welsh language channel, broadcasting the games with commentary in Welsh, so is not a direct competitor with an English language channel. 

S4C secured exclusive UK free-to-air broadcast rights to show the Wales games in the UEFA Nations League campaign and the European Qualifiers campaign for UEFA EURO 2024, which are available free to watch live on Sgorio Rhyngwladol.

“It is key that Wales supporters can enjoy their matches on free-to-air television."

Announcing the deal, S4C Chief Executive, Sian Doyle, said:

"We are thrilled that S4C will be the exclusive free-to-air home of the Wales men's national football team, and we believe that this is fantastic news for Welsh football supporters and the Welsh language.

"This is a golden age for the Welsh national team and for the continued growth and development of the game it is key that supporters can enjoy their matches on free-to-air television."

It's a fair bet that if Wales had been competing in the Curling Wolrd Chamipomshops, S4C would have shown the games. In contrast, Simon Pitts from STV told the select committee that, for Scottish international football and other sporting events where the likely TV audience is Scotland only, a commercial channel like STV which has no government support is unable to bid.

An insider said: “The way the Scotland games for the Euro qualifiers were packaged it would not have been possible for any UK broadcaster to bid for them”.

Another insider said: “If the UK government had intervened it might have been possible for the Scotland games to be free to view. As it stands, the games will be on pay-to-view subscription TV until 2028.”

In an independent Scotland, the government could intervene

What does it say to youngsters coming up through grassroots sports in Scotland that they can’t cheer for their national teams?  In football terms, the unfairness is even more marked this year as, for the first time in recent years, the England Euro qualifying games are free to view, on Channel Four. No terrestrial broadcaster in the UK bids for the rights to show Scotland’s Euro qualifiers. 

Scotland does not have an independent national broadcasting company. Scotland’s broadcasting sector is much weaker than that of similar-sized independent countries. Scotland does not have a government-supported Scottish-run channel. Instead, fee money goes to the BBC in London which does not even manage to spend a population share of that in Scotland. 


This is a problem the free market won't solve

The Scottish Affairs Select Committee was right to point out the “frustration” this situation causes in Scotland. They recognised that this is a problem the free market is not likely to be able to solve. Multinational pay-to-view channels that secure these rights have “no obvious commercial incentive” to relinquish exclusivity.

It will require government intervention to give Scottish sports fans the same rights to watch their national teams that citizens of independent countries take for granted, either by setting up and supporting a genuinely independent Scottish channel, or through legislation. In an independent Scotland, the Scottish government would be empowered to make sure Scots are no longer let down.  


By Jackie Kemp