Channel 4’s England Deal Is a Victory for Those Who Too Often Lose

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In many ways, this marks the end of an era. It appears we’ve heard ITV’s iconic England coverage intro for the last time. No longer will England matches open to that animated journey to Wembley, in white and red, with The Verve’s wonderful Bittersweet Symphony appositely capturing the anticipation.

ITV had already softened the blow by brutally demoting the voice of England, Clive Tyldesley, from their head commentator role to one of their many secondary voices — a very unpopular decision at the time. A significant number of Twitter users have called for the bosses at Channel 4 to give Tyldesley a call.

No one saw this coming. When this news broke a week or so ago, it was simply thought that Channel 4 had beaten Sky Sports for the race to show England’s 2022/23 Nations League campaign against Germany, Italy and Hungary. Sky had shown England’s first two campaigns in UEFA’s new competition, which had sparked frustration that England’s national team were not on free-to-air television.

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The so-called Crown Jewells are a set of high-priority sporting events which must be shown on free-to-air TV channels in the UK by law. This includes all World Cup and Euros matches for all nations, and all World Cup and Euros qualifiers involving England. Friendlies and Nations League matches are not covered — prompting many to ask whether a blanket category of ‘all England men’s and women’s international matches’ would be simpler and fairer to fans less financially less well-off.

But Channel 4’s exciting bid was in fact for full England men’s rights until 2024. The public service broadcaster will show 20 England matches, including England’s Nations League matches in the summer and the autumn, all friendlies, and all their Euro 2024 qualifiers. BBC and ITV retain their rights to England’s matches at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

For Channel 4, this is a huge coup. They recently won sports broadcaster of the year at the British Sports Journalism Awards, thanks to spotting gaps in the market for single events of British interest, such as Emma Raducanu’s triumph in the US Open final and the Formula One season climax in Abu Dhabi. In addition, they broadcasted Chelsea’s run to Club World Cup glory earlier in 2022. They have also long been the broadcaster of the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. It signals the latest power move from a public broadcaster fighting against Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s attempts to privatise the company.

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The deal will see the Nations League on free-to-air television for the first time, after Sky showed England’s third- and ninth-placed finishes in 2019 and 2021 respectively. Following ITV’s long-standing coverage of England matches, the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign will be the first not shown by ITV since the BBC’s contract ended in 2008.

Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s CEO, said about the deal: “As a life-long committed football fan, I am personally so delighted that we have these matches on the channel which further reinforce our reputation as a top quality sport broadcaster having been named Sports Network of the Year at this year’s British Sports Journalism Awards.”

The channel’s head of sport, Pete Andrews, added: “We’re absolutely delighted to have secured this deal with UEFA and I’m sure England fans will be looking forward to the summer with great anticipation.”

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Understandably, fans have shown a sense of nostalgia towards ITV’s excellent England coverage. However, there seems to be a sense of excitement for what Channel 4’s coverage will look like. It is, after all, a plunge into unknown waters for the network which turns 40 later this year. There is also relief that the Nations League rights no longer belong to a paid-for broadcaster.

It would take a very cynical person indeed to play down the magnitude of this coup by Channel 4 on the grounds that tournament rights are not included. Gareth Southgate’s reign has seen some memorable Nations League games and qualifying matches. These include the famous 3–2 win over Spain in Seville and last-gasp victory over Croatia which sealed England’s place at the 2019 Nations League finals, and the 2–2 qualifying draw against Scotland at Hampden Park in 2017 which featured Leigh Griffith’s superb free-kick double for the hosts.

Channel 4 can now hope to capture similar moments for themselves. They kick off their two years of fun in just over a month’s time when England return to Budapest for the first time since their players received racist abuse during a 4–0 win in September.

I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.” England games are free now. Free at the point of consumption, anyway. But let’s not get into that…

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