Armchair fans have never been able to watch so many games – if they can afford them, understand which channel has what and get their hands on all the right equipment. John Willis explains what has changed for this season, why next year will be different and who the hell Setanta think they are

It used to be so simple. You tipped up at your local ground at five to three every other Saturday, and got rained on as your lot lost to some loathsome outfit, invariably wearing red. Followed by an evening of whatever took your fancy – but home in time for Match of the Day.

Now, any self-respecting fan has a whole barrage of choices to make before even considering whether to endure the ludicrous kick-off times and prices inflicted by their club. Choices that start with the most fundamental – whether or not to pay. That’s over and above the licence fee, of course. When you think about it, there will be a load of football available to the terrestrial armchair fan this coming season. There’s Match of the Day, the FA Cup and some ­England games on BBC; extensive Champions League coverage and Championship highlights on ITV; plus live UEFA Cup and MLS action on Five. And for many, that will be enough – either through choice, household economics or simply maintaining some form of domestic equilibrium.

The split of households by TV reception is revealing. There are just over 25 million UK homes, of which six million have terrestrial only. Around eight million have gone down the satellite route and three million subscribe to cable while, rising out of the shambles that was ITV Digital, the big success story has been Freeview, the low-cost, non-subscription service now present in almost ten million homes. (It adds to more than the total as some homes have two services – typically satellite downstairs and Freeview in a bedroom.)

How many homes currently have a monthly Sky Sports subscription? Nobody knows for sure, but around six million seems a reasonable stab. About ten per cent of that lot shelled out another £50 for a Prem Plus season ticket, giving them access to 50 additional pay-per-view games. But that was last season, when Sky still called the shots. In an all-too-rare moment of lucidity, Gary Lineker once mumbled: “Football is a game played by 22 men – and then Germany win.” Well, substitute Sky for the Germans and you have a reasonable summary of televised football. Until now.

It’s fair to suggest that the European Commission have something of a bee in their bonnet over competition concerns. In the 2003 negotiations, Sky somehow got away without having to release any live Premier League games, but this time around there was no such escape. Which only served to open the door on an extraordinary story.

Michael O’Rourke and Leonard Ryan, two young Irishmen working in London, were frustrated by the lack of live coverage of the Republic’s 1990 World Cup game against Holland. So they bought the rights, hired the back room of a west London pub, charged their mates a tenner – and lost a small fortune on the evening. But they realised there was a market and Setanta was the upshot. Steady growth over the intervening period, based largely around Irish pubs and clubs, with rights to, among other things, hurling and Gaelic football, suddenly exploded into life last summer when an astonishing bid of £392 million won them two three-year Premier League rights packages comprising 46 games each season. Not “first pick” games and not the most attractive kick-off times, but a serious commitment, striking a fatal blow to Sky’s long-standing claim of exclusivity.

The paradox here was that the EC’s obsession with fair and transparent competition looked certain to hit the fan in the pocket. Not, one would assume, their primary objective. After all, one wouldn’t anticipate a price reduction from Sky, while Setanta’s £392m has to be found from somewhere. No prizes for guessing who’s top of the list.

The “easiest” way to raise £130m a season would be a million customers paying £130. Half that number would have to pay double the amount. And that takes no account of the money splashed on live Scottish, Conference and European football – not to mention an entire golf channel. But there may be a chink of light. In an industry notorious for bed-hopping, broadcast alliances are bewildering. The BBC have traditionally worked with Sky. Sky bought 18 per cent of ITV. ITV submitted a successful joint bid for the next FA rights package, but with Setanta, who are also now working alongside new players BT Vision. And so it goes on. Fidelity not being a word that springs to mind. But a new broadcast relationship sounds as if it could bring some short-term relief to the bewildered fan – Setanta and Virgin.

Setanta, who originally priced their sports pack at £20 per month, before reducing it to £15 and then £10, have now announced that all Virgin Media top-tier customers will receive their channels at no additional charge. So, at a stroke, Setanta’s customer base leapt from a few hundred thousand to probably not far off two ­million. Of course in terms of basic economics, it changes nothing – their vast outlay still somehow needs to be matched. But in the short-term this at least looks a ­proposition worth studying – always assuming, of course, that you have access to cable.

Setanta appear to have taken the view that they don’t need to recoup their investment all at once and have gone for mass-market coverage rather than short-term financial return. Quite how the second year of their contract will evolve remains to be seen, but there should be some reasonable deals available – for this season at least. At the end of 2007-08, the new ITV/Setanta deal kicks in, with the two broadcasters sharing FA Cup and England coverage. It seems reasonable to assume pricing may become rather more aggressive at that point.

But for the time being, there we have it. The goalposts move, almost daily, and comparison of the offerings, invariably including telephony and broadband, is horribly complicated. But the underlying question remains blindingly straightforward. Do you have enough live football?

Some who have not yet adopted multi-­channel TV may be attracted now that the entry price for live Premier League football is lower. Some Sky Prem Plus subscribers, having lost those games, will accept the Setanta proposition, though no one knows how many. Are there Sky customers out there who will replace their subscription with the cheaper, but less comprehensive, Setanta package? What about those with Freeview, to whom Sky has been unavailable?

For Ryan and O’Rourke, much has changed in the 17 years since that defining night in the back room of the Top Hat in Ealing in terms of scale, but not the central conundrum. They know there’s a market – but how the hell do they make it pay?

From WSC 247 September 2007

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