The introduction of pay-per-view television is a sign, Martin Cloake warns, that the media is changing football as we know it

“Pay-per-view is a good thing, because for years fans who pay at the gate have subsidised entertainment for armchair fans. Now those people are going to have to pay just the same as we do, and the clubs can make some money.” That was the view of one fan I spoke to last season, and there are plenty more who share it.

It seems to be accepted as fact that pay-per-view is the inevitable next step for football. Sky TV has already conducted some successful test runs with boxing, but football is the big one. The game is still being carried along on a huge wave of popularity, and there will be no problems with games stopping after just seconds, viewers with the strongest brand loyalty in the market are guaranteed 90 minutes of selected brand action. Football can be used to grow the pay-per-view market just as it was for satellite television in general.

But accepting this as inevitable means failing to ask pertinent questions about the increasingly unhealthy relationship between football and the media.

One of the most pernicious things about Sky’s pompous new advertising campaign – Football is our life – is that it discourages any consideration of the big picture. The game is important but it isn’t life, just a part of it – albeit an unfeasibly large one for many of us. But our devotion to football shouldn’t blind us to trends such as the control of the media falling into fewer and fewer hands, of the management of news or the worrying power of the major transnational media companies.

If you listen carefully you can hear worries being expressed about whether TV now covers or controls football. The Premier League may crow about the huge sum they secured for their ‘product’, but games are now played when the TV companies want them to be, not the football authorities, and the TV people are increasingly keen to ensure that, on and off the pitch, football is moulded to the image they’ve created.

The critical voices are quiet because TV does want them to be heard, so it denies them access. You see plenty of fans on TV, but increasingly only as colourful, quirky characters, not real people with real opinions. If TV encounters a difficult issue, it ignores it unless it can be used to stoke controversy and feed the hype. Just think of last season’s final home game at Anfield, when 40,000 Liverpool and Tottenham fans holding red cards aloft to demand justice for the Hillsborough victims were totally ignored by Sky, which was covering it live. Even the fact that both sets of players walked on to the pitch before the game carrying a banner calling for justice didn’t prompt any coverage. And the print media were almost all as bad.

There’s some speculation that the current Office of Fair Trading investigation into the Premier League/Sky TV deal will rule the Premier League acted as a cartel and lead to the blocking of any further deals. The assumption then is that Sky will be dealt a serious blow, and the clubs will be able to launch their own pay-per-view channels and make even more money.

But given the fact that, even now, most of the top clubs still have trouble just selling tickets efficiently, it’s safe to assume that setting up and running a TV station will be way beyond their capabilities. In any case, it makes more sense to buy in the expertise of people who already know how to cover games, process and transmit pictures and run the box office side of things too. So we may well see Manchester United TV, but it will be brought to you by Sky TV, with both parties raking in a hefty wedge.

Let’s take the projection a bit further. Maybe, in order to have influence at the very heart of the game, Sky TV buy United. And Granada buy Liverpool. Maybe Michael Green’s Carlton group buys one of the big London clubs, or Spurs. Conflicts of interest loom, as does a loss of football’s ability to function as an independent entity. And football club chairmen will seem positively progressive when judged against the media barons.

But aside from all the unhealthy possibilities already mentioned, there’s a more fundamental point. Maybe it’s an unfashionable one which concerns principle and even – gasp – ideology, but it’s a point worth making. Is it right that football, or indeed any sport, should be accessible on TV only to those who can afford premium prices? I don’t think it is. Those who can’t afford today’s inflated ticket prices should still be able to watch the game, together with those who couldn’t get tickets for the live event because of demand, or those who could not travel for one reason or another. TV companies talk a lot about choice, but the drive to pay-per-view is all about restricting choice.

And what of the long term effects of fencing televised football off for a privileged elite? If younger fans can’t get into the grounds, and can’t watch the game on TV, where will football attract future audiences from? And when audiences diminish, TV will look for something new.

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month

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