Ten years ago, the World Rally Championship in the United Kingdom was a fairly popular form of motor sport. Boasting terrestrial television coverage and audiences of millions of viewers and beyond, the championship enjoyed a high profile status. Fast forward ten years, and currently, the rights are non-existent. But why has this great form of motor sport experienced such a sharp decline in this country?
From the 1980’s through to 2001, the World Rally Championship alongside other forms of rallying made part of BBC Sport’s Grandstand programme. It was not all plain sailing for rallying on the BBC though. Two series’ of Mobil 1 Rally Challenge were produced and shown for BBC Two in 1989 and 1990, but this was not enough to persuade those high up to commit to rallying full time. The next opportunity for rallying to break out came with British stars Colin McRae and Richard Burns later that decade. This succeeded, somewhat, thanks to the Top Gear production team, with interesting being reignited in the product. Despite this, BBC’s motor sport portfolio was spiralling downwards, leading to Channel 4 winning the rights from 2002 onwards for an estimated £20 million over three years. At the time, then Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson said “The World Rally Championship has always been a thrilling and hugely popular event. However, new technology means we can now transform the coverage of this classic sport and make it accessible to a wider audience.” That statement, is such a stark contrast to what the World Rally Championship faces in the UK ten years on.
Unfortunately for Channel 4 though, their first season did not provide an exciting championship race as Marcus Grönholm stormed to championship victory in 2002. 2003 provided better luck with the championship going down to the wire. With neither Burns and McRae in the 2004 championship however, interest dropped. This did not stop a bidding war though for the broadcast rights between ITV and Channel 4, with ITV unexpectedly winning the rights at the start of 2004. The channel broadcasted the championship as stand-alone programmes, and as part of their Speed Sunday strand. Like Channel 4 before them, the ITV press release boasted about trying to “bring a wider audience to the sport”. That didn’t happen. It was a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’. 2004 marked the beginning of Sébastien Loeb’s domination and, as was the case with Formula 1 at the same time, audiences dropped along with the interest that went alongside it. Unlike with Formula 1 however, where Michael Schumacher was challenged and eventually succeeded by Fernando Alonso, followed by the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, over in rallying there was no one to challenge Loeb, no one to ignite the interest of the British audience. The picture was stagnant, and a stagnant picture means that casual fans, such as myself, become less interested in the product.
It was with that lack of interest that ITV’s interest in the World Rally Championship dwindled. Despite still attracting healthy audiences, such as the 1.57 million viewers that watched the culmination of the 2006 championship, ITV made the decision to move the championship over to ITV4. In terms of viewership, the decision was catastrophic. Audiences slashed, with only 297,000 viewers watching the conclusion of the 2007 season, and average audiences hovering in the mid 100,000. At the start of 2008, Dave bought the rights to screen the championship in a deal lasting three years. Not being on a terrestrial television station continued to hurt the championship with audiences failing to reach the highs it had many years earlier. In 2011, coverage moved to ESPN. The official World Rally Championship promoted the move as giving fans ‘more coverage than ever before’. Whilst, technically, that is a factual statement, the reality was that the coverage was now available to fewer people than ever before. Viewing figures were below 100,000 and the World Rally Championship in the UK had hit its lowest point. By now, it had gone from being a mainstream sport with millions of followers to one where you would have to dig deep into the TV guide to find out just when and where it was on. Alongside the aforementioned, British Eurosport would provide coverage of the events, but that too has come to a grinding halt.
Today, the World Rally Championship in the UK is currently without a rights holder for this season. The championship has been hit by its failure to evolve with the times to those who demand to be closer to the action and see everything live nowadays instead of in highlights form, and also by being dominated by one man for such a long period. Steve Rider discusses this point fantastically in his new book, noting how broadcasters’ still have not got a grip on rallying: “The challenge for television, then and now, is also to add that ingredient and portray rallying in a far more competitive tone, and not just as a series of disjointed ‘up and past’ shots linked together by prolonged ‘in-car’ sequences. [..] Then there is the biggest question of all: could all this be done live? Can live coverage of rallying ever make practical, economic or editorial sense?”
For the sport, it will be a long road to recovery. Has Loeb caused more damage to the championship than anyone could have imagined? I think so. When one man dominates for so long, it is inevitable that interest drops worldwide. Formula 1 was lucky. Alonso, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel emerged at the right time and thankfully for that form of motor sport, Schumacher retired. Rallying has not been so lucky. Loeb has not retired, and no one has emerged to sufficiently challenge Loeb to create a ‘great battle’ to bring back the lost fans. As a result, rallying finds itself in a sad state. Let’s not take anything away from Loeb, he will probably be remembered as one of the greats with nine championships. But the damage caused will not be rectified soon. With Loeb announcing his retirement at the end of 2012, 2013 needs to be the start of the recovery process for the championship in this country. No British drivers’, no future McRae or Burns, means that the recovery process starting this season is highly unlikely.
It will be a long road to recovery for the World Rally Championship. And I, for one, hope to see it standing tall again soon.
The quote from Steve Rider’s book ‘My Chequered Career’ comes from page 94.