Freelance sports broadcasters lashed out at wage-setting as the wage-setting probe opened

Concerned about a three-hour drive home after working a 14-hour day for BT Sport in the Women’s Super League in 2020, a cameraman asked if he could book accommodation for the night.

“They said bad luck,” explained the freelancer, who asked not to be named. Five years before his retirement, he stopped taking jobs for sports Channelreduced his gross salary from around £50,000 to £25,000 and took up extra work as a delivery driver.

“I decided I didn’t want to be treated like a commodity anymore, with no respect for our work,” he said.

“Every time we’ve put our hands up and said, look at the rising costs of inflation — for fuel, housing, food — they wouldn’t raise our wages.”

He pointed out that the tariffs and conditions offered to freelancers by Sports Channels were among the least attractive in all television production.

Now Britain’s biggest sports channels – including BT, Sky, ITV and IMG – are under UK Competition Authority investigation for the possible setting of contractor prices.

Officials from the Competition and Markets Authority showed up at the company’s headquarters with search warrants Tuesday morning to look for evidence of collusion. Their investigation sheds light on the challenging working conditions faced by the mostly non-union army of cameramen, sound engineers, slow-motion specialists, floor managers and technical staff that enable millions of viewers to watch sports wherever they are in the world condition.

A video sound engineer works behind a goal during a soccer match between Wrexham Association Football Club and Maidenhead United at the Racecourse Ground stadium in Wrexham, north Wales, January 29, 2022.
Freelancers typically make £400 a day filming games © Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Depending on the game, between 50 and 90 per cent of these workers are freelancers, flitting between sports, countries and channels, employed either directly by companies like BT, Sky and ITV or through suppliers like EMG and Timeline. Many were hard hit in the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, unable to qualify for furlough payments but struggling with a drastic reduction in live sport.

Up until this week, many in the industry believed the pay rates they received had been set by an official body and suspected no underlying collusion. But competition authorities are now examining how anti-competitive behavior could depress wages for the self-employed, a concern that has gained urgency during the cost-of-living crisis.

“Competition authorities can be expected to go after wage-fixing cartels and non-solicitation agreements related to labor shortages and pressure to raise wages,” said Stijn Huijts, a lawyer at Geradin Partners.

Cameramen and sound engineers the Financial Times spoke to said broadcasters surveyed by the CMA tended to offer the same daily rate of £400 for many matches, regardless of where or when the match was played, and that this fee had to cover costs and travel. They said the rate has risen only marginally over the past eight years and has not kept pace with inflation – after rising from £350 in 2014.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re filming the World Cup final. . . or do a two or 10 hour shoot, it’s a flat fee,” said one cameraman, who asked not to be named if it would affect his ability to get jobs.

A television cameraman checks his team sheet with headshots of players during the Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton at Molineux on January 15, 2022 in Wolverhampton, England
A TV cameraman checks his team sheet © Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Another contractor said: “In the six years that I’ve worked in sports there will be a period of maybe a year or 18 months where the tariffs offered by Sky, BT, Amazon and PLP are identical. Then it’s usually Sky who increases the rate by £10 first, followed by the others.”

“They would all have to stick together and refuse to work unless the rate increases [to make a change] but that will never happen,” they added. “You’re easily replaceable, which means there’s always going to be someone who’s happy to do it at a lower price.”

Several freelancers said the £400 fixed fee applies to some of the most popular games such as football, although pay could vary for other sports such as tennis and horse racing. In contrast, a job in a TV studio can cost £44 an hour or up to £528 a day plus expenses and travel.

None of the broadcasters involved in the CMA investigation were willing to comment on the pricing, but a representative from one disputed the idea that there is an industry-wide rate for most technical freelancers at sporting events. They said broadcasters have different market rates that could fluctuate as they try to attract talent for a particular game.

After announcing the CMA investigation this week, BT said it was clear that the regulator had been “focused very specifically on the purchase of professional services and not on other aspects of BT Sport or the broader business of BT Group”. ITV, Sky and IMG said they were working together on the investigation.

The issue of pay has come more into focus as the cost of work and living have skyrocketed.

“The price of diesel and everything eats up our daily rate,” said another cameraman, noting that it’s not uncommon for some people to drive 1,000 miles a week for jobs. “Before Covid-19, you would have gotten at least one warm meal on site. . . but during covid they got rid of them like that. . . People did a 12-hour day with a sandwich in their pocket.”

As the intensity of the pandemic has eased, work for freelance technicians has increased dramatically. But unlike NHS, Network Rail, Royal Mail and BT staff, they don’t have robust systems in place to collectively demand improvements in pay and working conditions.

Still, sports broadcasters could be forced to step up their game.

“When you treat people like crap they give you the minimum, they burn out, I’ve seen that happen so many times,” the first cameraman the FT spoke to, who quit his job at Sky, told BT. “There’s nothing worse than going to work and not enjoying it.” Freelance sports broadcasters lashed out at wage-setting as the wage-setting probe opened

Adam Bradshaw

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