THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

26 April ~ We're up to 1992 in our 25-year retrospective. The Premier League hadn't even kicked off, but the editorial in WSC 65 could already see that fleecing fans was what the new set-up was all about

They have been shamelessly manipulated by the greedy bunch of backsliders in charge of the Premier League, but Hell will freeze over before we feel even the slightest twinge of sympathy for the ITV Sports Department.

It is particularly ironic that ITV should have failed to secure the rights to exclusive coverage of the Premier League, because they played a crucial role in its creation through their elitist approach to the televising of English football over the past few years. Criticism would be rebuffed by claims that the size of audience necessary to keep their advertisers happy could only be guaranteed by serving up a regular diet of the Big Five and, occasionally, one or two of their medium-sized chums. Market research would be brandished to back up their argument. 

Mindful that statistics can be made to prove anything, many fans remained sceptical. It was bad enough that their intelligence should be insulted by the tawdry populism of The Match; more alarming still was the thought of the influence that such highly selective television coverage might be having on the next generation of potential football fans, those not yet old enough to attend matches on a regular basis, who may have absorbed a false image of English football, revolving entirely around a handful of clubs with whom they are encouraged to identify.

Unfortunately, the First Division club chairmen, peculiar organisms that somehow manage to combine a mile-wide conniving streak with a naive, trusting nature, swallowed the story whole. It was to be survival of the fittest. To its founder members, the principle appeal of the Premier League was that all the money gained from a future TV deal would be kept by the participating clubs, with none filtering down to the rest of the League as had been the case with all previous television agreements.

The FA momentarily hoped that they might be able to engineer the creation of a streamlined division whose reduced fixture list would be of benefit to the England national team and might improve the quality of matches presented to the paying spectator. The illusion didn't last long, however, and we have been left with a new competition containing the same number of clubs as the old First Division, the critical difference being that its creation has substantially widened the gap between the wealthiest clubs and the rest. (Of course, now that clubs stand to make so much money from the BBC/BSkyB deal, who would bet against concerted efforts being made to prevent the Premier League being reduced to twenty clubs, as is supposed to happen at the end of 1993-94?)

The pitiful financial state of many smaller League clubs, likely to be made worse by the financial commitments imposed upon them by the Taylor Report, provided a pressing reason for hoping that lTV might be out-bid. The Football League simply can't afford to do without revenue from television. The various lTV regions already transmit programmes of football highlights, in many cases showing almost all the weekend's matches involving League teams within their catchment area. The BBC, however, has virtually no regionalised sports coverage in England and it seems unlikely that they would have taken up the option of covering the remainder of the League had they failed to secure rights to the Premier League.

It was no surprise that ITV should seek to gain some mileage out of the fact that live matches will now be seen by a much smaller audience. There has been talk of 'overkill', but the owners of satellite dishes are the only ones who will see substantially more football than is currently available on the terrestrial channels. Anyone prepared to spend a couple of hundred pounds on a dish is hardly likely to be the sort of floating fan who might lose interest in football through over-exposure to it.

A more genuine cause for concern is the issue of pay-television. So far, all that has been established is that in the first year of the new deal, Premier League matches will be transmitted 'free'. In the second year, viewers will be expected to pay a subscription to a football channel. Thereafter, they will pay for each game watched. It is understandable that BSkyB should want to recoup some of their huge amount of money invested in the Premier League. However, they should at least give some indication of how much the subscribers' channel will cost. That they haven't yet done so suggests they will wait to see how many dishes are sold in the first year, with subscription charges being hiked up if sales fall below expectations.

Another way of making up the shortfall would be to increase admission prices for Premier League matches. Either way, fans will be fleeced. Which is, after all, what the Premier League is all about.

The plan to stage live matches on Monday nights met has been vehemently criticised by a number of club chairmen. Their principal complaint, that it may oblige teams involved in European competitions to play twice in the space of three days, is easily resolved – it ought to be possible to arrange the fixture list so that no team due to play on Wednesday would have to turn out two days earlier. Far more objectionable is the imposition placed on travelling fans. Supporters are an integral part of a football match. The smaller crowds likely to result from the Monday night scheduling will only diminish the game as a spectacle. It might serve as an ominous warning of what is to come if Silvio Berlusconi succeeds in his ambition of launching a European League funded entirely by corporate sponsorship and viewers' subscriptions.

Given the low calibre of people holding positions of power within English football (Gordon Taylor honourably excepted), there was never any likelihood that the television contract could have been worked out in a way that would seem satisfactory to a majority of football fans. BSkyB have muscled in largely because it 'seems that the BBC were not prepared to share coverage with lTV, a consequence of the feud which can probably be traced back to 1988 when the commercial network bought up exclusive rights to League football. One horror show is over, another may be about to begin.

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