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LONDON (AP) _ Suppose ABC lost ``Monday Night Football,″ or the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. had to give up ``Hockey Night in Canada.″
That’s what’s happening in Britain, where the once all-powerful BBC has been stripped of a soccer show that has been a staple for sports fans for almost four decades.
``R.I.P. Match of the Day,″ said the front-page headline Thursday in the Daily Mail, summing up the nation’s shock after it was announced that ``Match of the Day″ was leaving the British Broadcasting Corp. lineup.
``It’s all very sad, the end of an era,″ said Kenneth Wolstenholme, a British broadcasting legend who worked on the very first ``Match of the Day″ 36 years ago.
ITV, a commercial network and the BBC’s biggest rival, won the rights, beginning with the 2001-2002 season. While ITV is expected to air a soccer highlights show, it is uncertain what form it will take or if the ``Match of the Day″ title will be retained.
The news was the latest blow to BBC’s crumbling sports empire. ITV snatched the exclusive rights to Premier League highlights Wednesday with a $91.5 million bid, more than 50 percent above the BBC’s $60 million offer.
Things brightened a bit Thursday. In a three-year, $660 million deal, the BBC won shared rights to some games in the FA Cup, England’s top club competition, and tournament matches involving the national team. These could be either live or on tape, which could mean a periodic return of ``Match of the Day″ although not on a weekly basis.
The ``Beeb″ is a public-service broadcaster that relies on license fees paid by viewers. It used to monopolize sports coverage, but has been shoved aside in recent years by the explosion of cable and satellite networks and the resulting fierce competition for sports rights.
The BBC has lost such major events as the Ryder Cup, the English FA Cup final, Formula One auto racing, test match cricket, the rugby World Cup and much of its live horse racing coverage.
The industry is now dominated by Rupert Murdoch and his BSkyB satellite company, which retained the rights to live Premier League coverage Wednesday in a three-year, $1.65 billion deal.
NTL, an American-based cable TV operator, landed the rights to show 40 matches on a pay-per-view basis for $492 million. It’s the first time pay-per-view matches will be shown in Britain.
The overall package, totaling $2.43 billion, is the biggest television contract ever signed in Britain.
While ``Match of the Day″ will continue on ITV, the network switch was the top item in newspapers, TV newscasts and radio talk shows, reflecting both the unparalleled popularity of the show and the dominant role that soccer plays in British society.
First screened in black and white, ``Match of the Day″ became a regular feature of any soccer fan’s weekend evenings, especially in the days before pubs installed TVs.
Under an arrangement with the Football League, the BBC would never announce which game was being shown. The reasoning was that, if fans knew in advance, they might stay at home rather than go to the games.
The show made the careers of longtime commentators Barry Davies and John Motson, while former Fulham player and club director Jimmy Hill, joining the show as an expert analyst, often infuriated viewers with his controversial remarks.
The program turned Des Lynam, a smooth and unflappable host, into a major TV celebrity. He hit the headlines when he left BBC last year to join ITV. His replacement at BBC has been former England star Gary Lineker.
``I am personally thrilled to be reunited with the Premier League,″ Lynham said.
Wolstenholme was there at the beginning, on a show that featured Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Anfield in August 1964.
``It set the standards for so long, but now it’s the end,″ he said. ``It’s now almost impossible for the BBC to catch up. They just don’t have the money or the income, and it’s very sad indeed.″
BBC Director General Greg Dyke said loss of ``Match of the Day″ was a ``body blow″ but was pleased with the FA Cup and national team deals.
Still, he said, the bidding process was unfair and ITV’s winning bid made ``no economic sense.″
``We are spending public money,″ he said. ``Could we really justify that? ... Ninety-five percent of this money goes to the clubs, of which most goes to foreign footballers. Is that what we collect the license fee for?″
Dyke alleged that ITV had no initial interest in bidding and did so only at the last minute when approached by Premier League officials who wanted to push up the price.
``Something happened in the last few days that made them decide to throw vast sums of money at it, which we couldn’t justify beating with license-payers’ money,″ he said.
Premier League spokesman Mike Lee accused Dyke of ``sour grapes.″
``The three winners have won fairly and squarely following a process that was open and clear to all the broadcasters,″ he said.