Monopoly bored

Television deals are becoming increasingly important in the modern game. Roger Titford explains the latest agreement that will determine how we view football

More evidence of football’s growing importance as the new national religion arrives: the left-wing, oops sorry, independent, think tank Demos have published a pamphlet arguing that price controls should be imposed on Sky TV by a newly-created Office for Regulating the Broadcasting of Sport (ORBS?).

Demos makes the case that sports broadcasting, like gas or water, is a natural monopoly. Therefore sporting institutions and the broadcasters can, without regulation from the putative ORBS, act against the consumers’ interest by raising subscription prices to unfair levels. It matters politically because, they argue, the nation gains in social cohesion from mass participation via TV in important sports events like the Cup Final and the World Cup from which non-subscribers are excluded.

Their primary target for this regulation is of course Sky, but the case they make against Rupert’s men actually seems a tad unfair and weak. Because the FA Cup Final and the World Cup finals are ‘listed’ events of national significance the rights have to be open to ‘free-to-air’ broadcasters (ITV and BBC to you and me) and therefore Sky cannot monopolise them and so do not bother to show them.

What Sky do monopolise is live League football coverage. But, except only in a fairly limited form, this was simply unavailable before Sky came along. Sky, primarily, have created a new audience for new formats of televised football outside the old confines of ‘listed events’.

Most of the time BBC/ITV armchair fans are not losing out on what they used to be able to watch. Rather they are not able/willing to take advantage of the new forms. Crucial World Cup qualifiers, like the Italy game, are the exception to this general rule.

Worryingly for a think tank some of their basic facts on which the argument is based are wildly inaccurate. They write, “only a small proportion of the population, about 10%, subscribe to cable or satellite broadcast”. The current figure is, in fact, 27% and 20% of the population have access to the sports channels. All these people have neighbours, friends and relatives happy to invite themselves round for vital games. The group most likely to suffer from total football withdrawal syndrome is pensioners.

Nonetheless, whatever the strength of their arguments, Demos are tapping into a wide-spread feeling that televised football, once so under-priced, is now over-priced and could well get deeply exploitative in a pay-per-view era. It is right to address the issue of what nowadays belongs on the ‘listed events’ list (World Cup qualifiers, Premiership ‘deciders’?) and the way in which one broadcaster can monopolise all the different rights to cover an event (radio, highlights etc). And it will almost certainly take the strength of a government body to have an effect on the way in which we are able to consume this great natural resource (aka football on the box).

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month