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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 14:13 GMT
Boat Race enters new era
By Martin Gough

New Boat Race commentator Peter Drury shakes his head vigourously when the subject of viewing figures comes up in conversation.

Cambridge celebrate their 2004 Boat Race victory
Some critics claim recent Boat Races have been over-branded
"We're not going to get nine million," he says. "The BBC had everything in its favour last year and we haven't."

He is not talking about the differing abilities of ITV and BBC to cover Sunday's match between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but the vagaries of nature.

Dictated by the tidal River Thames, last year's race began at almost six o'clock, and brought in a tea-time audience of 8.9m - the highest for 10 years - for the last race televised by the BBC after 66 years.

This year's event starts at 1505 BST, although it remains on a Sunday so competition from other sports is less.

Adds Drury: "It would be like comparing EastEnders to Country File."

However, despite comments from new ITV controller of sport Mark Sharman that he would not have signed the five-year, 1.75m deal had he been in charge, the channel is making the most of its investment.

A documentary team has been following the crews for the last year for an hour-long programme on Saturday.

Changes to coverage include new cameras in key positions and graphics always on screen to help make the crews' relative positions and work rate more obvious.

If I had been in charge one or two years ago I might have done one or two things a bit differently...
Howard Jacobs, London representative for the university boat clubs
Drury, who commentated on the Boat Race for BBC radio in 1997 and is part of the ITV Champions League team, will be backed by big names Gaby Logan and James Cracknell.

The change in TV coverage is just part of a new era for the Boat Race, with new radio and sponsorship deals also put in place by a management team that has seen great turnover in the last two years.

Some observers have been disappointed by the low-key nature of the new arrivals, though.

With their colleagues in TV snubbed, BBC radio did not aggressively pursue a new commentary deal, and it passed to London station LBC.

Listeners in Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the rest of the country, will still be tuned to BBC Radio Five Live, which is providing regular updates.

Boat Race officials now deny the switch in broadcaster was designed to lure a big name sponsor.

That is a good job because business services company Xchanging is not, even compared to previous incumbent Aberdeen Asset Management.

The BBC's claims of the "organisers' desire to pursue a highly commercial agenda" show little sign of being true, though, in the run-up to the race.

The new sponsor will have its name on the "buffers" around TV advertising breaks, but the branding around the race has, if anything, decreased since last year.

Julia Lindsey, the race organiser and the person most widely identified with the new deals, declined an interview request.

But Howard Jacobs, London representative for the university boat clubs, says: "We're very pleased with the sponsor we've got.

"I don't think the move to ITV was motivated by the desire to go for a higher profile sponsor because the previous sponsor had served the race very well.

Oxford cox Acer Nethercott held aloft by crewmates
Nethercott is aiming high - with or without a big TV audience
"If I had been in charge one or two years ago I might have done one or two things a bit differently but everyone has got stuck into the new arrangements and they seem to have gone very well."

Jacobs, who won with Cambridge in 1973, continues: "The reason people like me stay involved is because the essence of the Boat Race never changes.

"It is a hard-fought competition between two amateur groups.

"Although it is nice to have a trophy, ultimately they are rowing for no material reward they are just doing it because they have a chance to do it."

Of the current crop, Oxford cox Acer Nethercott is less nostalgic, but eager to point out that the media circus surrounding the event takes up just a week in a challenge that for the crews takes six months.

"The Boat Race for us starts on 1 September when trialling starts and it continues through to 27 March, training twice a day, six days a week, come rain, come shine, studies or whatever," he says.

"It's flattering that there's all this press attention and its great for the sport and the event all the publicity it generates.

"But for us all that stuff's around the outside and we're permanently focussed on beating Cambridge."

For the oarsmen at least it would be the same with nine million watching or just nine.



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