Mutual appreciation

Much has been written about the effects of the Sky revolution on football but, continuing our series of retrospective features, David Harrison looks at that particular relationship the other way round

What has football done for television? On the surface it has helped build a juggernaut of a business, through the introduction of subscription TV. We pay an annual subscription to receive BBC services, but Sky introduced the concept of discretionary take-up and delivered a service around ten million households can’t do without – at an average annual cost now exceeding £500. Of those, maybe two-thirds take Sky Sports.

But the reality goes deeper than football’s massive contribution to the successful launch of a revolutionary new revenue stream. The other, less palatable, side of that coin is that the free-to-air broadcast model is irrevocably broken. That’s not exclusively down to Sky’s success, although obviously it hasn’t helped, but more to a potent combination of the fragmentation of TV audiences, the explosion of domestic internet access and general saturation of the product.

The old order, whereby broadcasters bought a programme and turned a profit through selling advertising in and around it, no longer works. Or at least it no longer works where football is concerned. Quite apart from those basic economics, plotting Champions League audiences over time further illustrates the point. Same broadcaster, format, clubs and exposure – yet the average UK television audience across the tournament has dropped from 10m in the late 1990s to half that figure now.

But 25 years is a long time and it’s worth acknowledging massive changes in the way football is covered. There’s so much live football today we take it for granted, but it wasn’t long ago that most games were shown as recorded highlights. A match would be televised using five cameras and if the commentator was lucky he might see some action replays while commentating. Generally he would have to repeat what he saw after a goal for those in the VT edit suites to add the slow motion afterwards, during their packaging of the match. Commentators had to be skilled, firstly in remembering what had happened and then describing it succinctly, enabling the replay to be dropped in.

Today, commentators have countless angles of incidents immediately available to analyse. That’s partly because 16-camera match coverage has become the norm and also through the development of digital replay machines. The commitment made by broadcasters, providing almost every conceivable benefit for the armchair viewer, has been extraordinary. Add the emergence of HD and 3D and the resultant levels of investment make it obvious that football is not only the most important sport on television, but also delivers some of the most important television of any genre.

Commercially it does make sense – but from a subscription viewpoint. Sky run an impressive business, but without Sky Sports their customer proposition would look thin. And without football, Sky Sports would hold very limited appeal. As the current recession bit, there was talk about the pressure it would place on Sky’s revenue generation. One view was that Sky subscriptions would head the list of potential household savings. The reality proved the opposite. In many cases, it would have been the last thing to go. Cut down on the cost of going out and staying in needs to be as fulfilling as possible – with Sky unquestionably now the key player in domestic entertainment.

Ironically, Sky probably now has more Premier League football than it wants, or needs. When Premier League rights were last sold, Sky gained five of the six packages, where previously they held four. Those four provided 92 games, while they now have another 23, which will attract minimal additional subscription, yet cost another £200m. This is a defensive tactic, adding little for Sky but damaging the chances of ESPN becoming a major player. It remains to be seen if the Disney-owned channel will show sufficient ambition to attack Sky’s dominance when the bidding next takes place. But since the embarrassing demise of Setanta, the Premier League must be thrilled to have stumbled across a partner with the credibility and pocket depth of ESPN.

The appearance of Setanta, and then ESPN, changed the game. Sky pay huge amounts for football and you wonder if that situation can endure. But why not? Unlike terrestrial broadcasters, Sky’s model works and football is fundamental to that. Previously Sky had the field to themselves, with no other broadcaster able to afford live Premier League football, leaving no real competition. So in an uncompetitive market, why did Sky continue to pay progressively more? Simple – they needed to continue improving the quality of the product.

If Sky paid less, there was a possibility some clubs would have gone bust, with better players either leaving for Spain, or never tipping up in the first place. The goose would have been throttled, leaving no chance of a golden egg. Alarm bells will only ring now should attendances start to fall, or UEFA restrict the way in which clubs operate, but if the game continues to inspire a passionate international following, then incomes should continue to grow.

Too much football on TV? Maybe. After all, virtually every broadcaster aspires to have live football somewhere in their schedule, as it’s almost uniquely effective in attracting the male audiences advertisers demand. But we can watch live football virtually every night of the week and eventually will become if not sick of it, then certainly more selective about which games we choose to view. There is surely a lesson to be learnt from the NFL where less really does mean more. They have a short regular season, of just 16 games, yet earn easily the most money from the US networks. That wouldn’t suit our game, but those running football must be mindful of the fact that too much of a good thing eventually becomes unpalatable – look at snooker.

At a push, TV could live without football. People watch for an average of four hours a day – they always have. If football were removed from the schedules, viewers would complain vehemently before finding something else. Football could live without TV, although the loss of revenue would leave us with a very different game. But we know that’s not going to happen.

From WSC 291 May 2011