Forty years ago, in November 1971, Alvechurch and Oxford City played six matches in 17 days to decide an FA Cup tie. It was more a World Series than sudden-death. At Villa Park, at the end of the fifth replay, Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis poured champagne for all the players, to celebrate their entry into the Guinness Book of Records. The record will never be broken.
When Ascot United were drawn at home in the FA Cup's extra preliminary qualifying round to Wembley FC, their board may have reasonably expected a gate of around 100. That would have been a wild underestimate. After 88 fans watched their midweek Hellenic League draw against Ardley United, a record crowd of 1,149 made their way to the Racecourse Ground.
Those punters weren't the only ones watching the tie. On Facebook 27,000 tuned in to a live stream of Wembley's eventual 2-1 victory, all of whom chose to stay in on a Friday and watch two teams playing five steps below the Football League. That's more than the average attendances of eight Premier League teams. The reason can be summed up in one word: Budweiser. The all-American beer hardly seemed the most natural fit for the FA Cup when the sponsorship was announced in June. Since then, however, the brewer appears to have demonstrated a better understanding of the competition than previous sponsors.
At the ground, fans were offered cheap beer and free burgers, while corporate razzmatazz was kept to a minimum. Online, users had to become a fan of the beer's UK Facebook page (providing they were over 18) then click on a bespoke widget on the page to view the match.
Instead of the usual jerky, slow video, the quality of the stream was high, and commentators Dan Roebuck and Stewart Robson had done plenty of research. There were no patronising asides to second jobs as binmen that often characterise ESPN's and ITV's coverage, while occasional pitchside swearing and one fumbled handover seemed in keeping with the occasion.
But for Budweiser and the FA, Ascot v Wembley was about more than bringing attention to teams in a round of the Cup that would usually attract next to no sponsorship. Viewed as an experiment, the Facebook stream can be seen as a success and several parties will be analysing the data with interest. Facebook has over 700 million members, meaning there is a large captive audience, both in the UK and abroad. Having "Liked" the Budweiser page in order to watch the game, all users will see the company's updates in their Facebook news feeds. The benefits to the brewer's marketing arm are obvious.
Streaming games legally online is not new. All major broadcasters offer online streaming of their live games, while sites like bet365.com have an array of rights to foreign leagues. ITV.com even streamed Wantage Town v Brading Town at the extra preliminary qualifying stage of the competition in 2008. Although ITV did an impressive job, viewing figures were low and costs high, and the extensive coverage was quietly dropped the following season.
With cricket's Indian Premier League signing a deal with YouTube and organisations as diverse as Major League Baseball and film studio Miramax experimenting with Facebook broadcasting, it was only a matter of time before football decided it wanted a piece of the action. The FA and Budweiser have now shown the appetite is there – the viewing figures for Ascot were certainly more than some broadcasters' Europa League streams and, you would suspect, Premier Sport's Conference coverage (although Premier doesn't release any viewing figures).
With ongoing uncertainty over TV rights, not least due to Portsmouth publican Karen Murphy's case against the Premier League, leagues and clubs are already having to plan for the possibility of a different media world. Facebook itself has ambitions to grow into a major broadcasting player. Although the cost may be prohibitive for individual clubs below the Championship to produce their own broadcasts (at least of the same quality as Budweiser's), it wouldn't be unexpected if the Conference, or sponsors Blue Square Bet, offer live streaming via Facebook when their current deal with Premier expires, if the sums add up.
However, unless Budweiser does further matches, it's difficult to tell if the figures were down to a one-off novelty factor or a wider desire to watch grassroots football. But a large portion of younger fans were unable to access the beer's Facebook page due to the age restrictions, meaning the numbers could be even higher if the brewer can find a way around this.
In the short term, it's hard to criticise Budweiser and the FA too much, as they pitched their initial stream perfectly. In the longer term, it remains to be seen if Facebook viewing can be sustained and, if it can, exactly what kind of broadcasting monster it may spawn.
From WSC 296 October 2011
A match being promoted as the greatest ever is not a modern phenomenon. Eighty-five years ago one newspaper previewed the first all-Manchester FA Cup semi-final as “the greatest of the Cup ties that have ever been played”. Another claimed it was “an historic event – one that may never occur again”. That was close – it has taken 85 years for the feat to be repeated.
Of all the FA's daft ideas – and there have been a few – the FA Cup third-place play-off must be among the worst. If, as the saying goes, no one remembers the runners-up, then who cares who came third? The answer, as it turned out, was no one at all. These were, and are, the forgotten FA Cup ties. The first play-off was in 1970, between that season's beaten semi-finalists, Manchester United and Watford. The game was played on a Friday night at Highbury, the day before the Cup final. United won 2-0; 15,105 people watched. And were they impressed?
Poor organisation has turned the battle for tickets for the FA Cup semi-finals into a luck-of-the-draw contest, writes Tom Whitworth
The four participating clubs in this season’s FA Cup semi-finals had the responsibility of fairly distributing their 33,000 Wembley tickets. They have each failed in various ways. The FA had reduced the original pricing structure of £55-£95 to £25-£55 in an attempt to ensure demand was sufficient to fill every seat. But all four clubs compelled fans to purchase tickets for games that followed their quarter-finals rather than rewarding past loyalty.
Dave Kitson’s criticism of the FA Cup made headlines, but Roger Titford believes the striker’s comments were misinterpreted and that what needs to change is how the competition’s prize money is handed out
“We’re not going to win the FA Cup. I don’t give two shits about it to be honest,” said Dave Kitson, ahead of Reading’s third-round tie at Spurs. It is a typically blunt opinion that has divided fans both locally and nationally. Those of us with tickets set off leaden-heartedly for the “small” game – but we can’t say we were not warned. It’s been club policy for three years to focus solely on the league. Yet we got a 2-2 draw, where our regulars lost 6-4 the week before.
A ticketing fiasco leads to hundreds of empty seats at a supposedly showpiece game. Bruce Wilkinson reports
Watching the FA Cup semi-final between Blackburn and Chelsea, you may have been surprised to see quite so many empty seats. The distance Chelsea supporters had to travel and the number of big games they have coming up were contributory factors, while Blackburn have had well publicised problems filling Ewood Park in the past couple of seasons. Ticket prices, however, also had a significant effect on the attendance.
The FA Cup final should be back at Wembley in May, but what was once the English game’s great showpiece is now almost a sideshow, argues Jon Spurling
On the eve of Leeds United’s defeat of Arsenal in the 1972 FA Cup final, captain Billy Bremner said: “I’ve won a Championship medal, a European medal and countless Scotland caps, but sometimes I think I’d swap the lot for an FA Cup winners’ medal.” A few hours later, Bremner professed delight “with my new prized possession”. How attitudes have changed. In his autobiography, Roy Keane described the showpiece occasion as “little more than an afterthought”, and Patrick Vieira admitted that Arsenal’s triumph in the 2005 final “can’t possibly make up for the disappointment of losing the league crown”.
Nothing better reflects the drop in interest in the FA Cup final than the absence of Kenny Lynch, believes Cameron Carter, and Brian Dowling is no substitute
The Guardian’s Donald McRae concluded his preview of last month’s FA Cup final with the challenge – “Fireworks and fisticuffs, and a few sublime goals, are the very least we expect.” I expect Donald was as disappointed by the absence of all three as anybody, but, for others among us, the most unsatisfactory aspect was the continued shrinking of the pre-match build-up on terrestrial television.
Tony Christie describes an odd encounter at a public exhibition of the FA Cup
It was in the North Country that I encountered him. At Doctor Pit Welfare Park, Bedlington, on a night when the darkening sky sat heavy on the ancient chimneys and the air was silent save for the occasional deranged hoot from a flock of Northern League urchins which had alighted in the blackness behind the away dug-out. Before a silken banner of richest cerulian blue and ivory embroidered with the runic slogan “AXA”, upon a velvet cloth there sat a great chalice of burnished silver.