Digital economy bill will be used to ensure events such as Olympics and Wimbledon can be watched on free-to-air channels

Serena Williams celebrates winning the women’s singles final at Wimbledon 2016.

Serena Williams celebrates winning the women’s singles final at Wimbledon 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Potential changes to the rules covering televised sport’s “crown jewels” will ensure the major events remain on free TV channels despite more people watching online, the government has said.

The rights for major events including the Olympics, the football World Cup and the Wimbledon tennis finals must be offered to free-to-air channels which can be received by at least 95% of the population under the current rules.

But ministers are concerned that the regime is based on people watching television and does not cover the growth of apps and websites that enable people to watch online through their phones and tablets.

The government will use the digital economy bill to give ministers the power to amend the qualifying criteria if it appears to be at risk. But officials stressed the new power would not affect which sports were included and there was no intention of reviewing the list.

The culture, media and sport secretary, Karen Bradley, said: “We want to future-proof these regulations so that in an ever-changing digital landscape the public will still have access to the crown jewels of sport on free-to-air channels.

“Sport has a unique power to have a hugely positive impact on people’s lives and it is right that the biggest events are available to all with their ability to inspire and encourage participation.”

As well as the Olympics, World Cup and Wimbledon finals, protected live sports include the rugby World Cup final, the Grand National and the Derby.

Highlights of events that must be offered to free-to-air channels include England’s home cricket tests, the Six Nations rugby championship involving the home nations and the Commonwealth Games.

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