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Freelance sports broadcasters hit out at pay rates as wage-fixing probe launched

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

“They said tough luck,” explained the freelance worker, who asked not to be named. Five years away from retirement, he stopped taking jobs for any sports broadcasters, reducing 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 the work we do,” he said.

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

He noted that the rates and conditions offered to freelancers by sports broadcasters were some of the least attractive across television production.

Now Britain’s biggest sports broadcasters — including BT, Sky, ITV and IMG — are under investigation by the UK competition regulator for potentially fixing contractors’ rates.

On Tuesday morning, officials working for the Competition and Markets Authority turned up with search warrants at the companies’ headquarters looking for evidence of collusion. Their investigation shines a light on the challenging working conditions faced by the mostly non-unionised army of camera operators, sound engineers, slow-motion specialists, floor managers and technical staff that allows millions of viewers to watch sport wherever they are in the world.

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

Depending on the game, between 50 and 90 per cent of these workers are freelancers, who flit between sports, countries and broadcasters, and are either hired directly by companies such as BT, Sky and ITV or via subcontracting firms like EMG and Timeline. Many were badly hit in the earlier months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as they were unable to qualify for furlough payments but had to contend with a drastic reduction in live sport.

Until this week, many in the industry believed the pay rates they received had been set by an official body, and did not suspect any underlying collusion. But competition enforcers are now scrutinising how anti-competitive behaviour could push down wages for self-employed workers, a concern that has taken on greater urgency during the cost of living crisis.

“Competition authorities can be expected to pursue wage-fixing cartels and no-poach agreements like hawks in the context of scarce labour resources and pressure to increase wages,” said Stijn Huijts, a lawyer at Geradin Partners.

Camera operators and sound engineers whom the Financial Times spoke to said the broadcasters being investigated by the CMA tended to offer the same day rate of £400 for many games, no matter where or when the match was, and that this fee had to cover expenses and travel. They said the rate had only risen marginally over the past eight years and had not kept up with inflation — having increased from £350 in 2014.

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

A TV camera operator checks their team sheet with player headshots during the Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers  and  Southampton at Molineux on January 15 2022 in Wolverhampton, England
A TV camera operator checks their team sheet © Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Another contractor said: “In the six years that I’ve worked on sports, there will be a period of perhaps a year or 18 months where the rates 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.”

“You would have to be all in it together and refuse to work unless the rate increased [to make a change] but that will never happen,” they added. “You’re easily replaceable, meaning there will always be someone happy to do it for a lower rate.”

Several freelancers said the £400 fixed fee applied to some of the most popular games, such as football, although pay for other sports such as tennis and horseracing could vary. A job in a television studio, by contrast, can pay £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 price setting, but a representative of one of them disputed the idea that there was a set industry-wide rate for most technical freelancers at sporting events. They said broadcasters had different market rates, which could fluctuate when trying to attract talent for a particular game.

After the announcement of the CMA’s investigation this week, BT said it was clear the regulator was “focused very specifically on the purchase of freelance services and not any other aspects of the BT Sport or wider BT Group business”. ITV, Sky and IMG said they were co-operating with the investigation.

The issues over pay have come into sharper focus as the cost of working and living has soared.

“The price of diesel and everything else is eating into our daily rate,” said another camera operator, noting that it was not uncommon for some people to drive 1,000 miles a week for jobs. “Before Covid-19, you would have at least been given a hot meal on site . . . but during Covid they got rid of them so . . . people were doing a 12-hour day with a sandwich in their bag.”

As the intensity of the pandemic has diminished, there has been a drastic increase in work for freelance technicians. But unlike employees at the NHS, Network Rail, Royal Mail and BT, they do not have robust systems to collectively demand improvements to pay and conditions.

Nonetheless, sports broadcasters may be forced to up their game.

“If you treat people like crap, they’ll give you the minimum, they’ll burn out, I’ve seen it so many times,” said the first camera operator the FT spoke to, who has given up working for Sky and BT. “There’s nothing worse than going to work and not enjoying it.”


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