Risk factor

Andy Brassell looks at a confusing and controversial TV deal for the Conference

It normally takes comedians or cover bands to pack out the bars at AFC Wimbledon and Kingstonian’s Kingsmeadow stadium on a night without a home game. But on a cold Friday evening in January, a few hundred were crammed in to watch live football. Wimbledon were playing at Gateshead and such is the relative obscurity of Premier Sports, the TV rights holder for the Football Conference from this season, that fans squeezed into the hostelries behind KM’s main stand to watch the transmission.

The Conference’s new TV deal – following a fallow season in the wake of Setanta’s collapse – was “unique” and “ground-breaking” according to the official statement that announced it on August 20. The pioneering aspect of the deal was that clubs would be paid on a profit-share basis. The statement said that member clubs would receive 50 per cent of all subscription cash “once a nominal level of subscribers has been achieved”, plus half of all internet revenue. In short, there’s a high risk of the clubs making nothing, bar a small supplementary fee when they are featured in a live game; all in exchange for exclusive rights and the inconvenience of having matches switched to Thursday/Friday nights, or Saturday tea-time. That the potential market is niche is something that the announcement itself recognised.

It is even more so due to the lack of platform choice. Currently only Sky customers can receive Premier, with Virgin or cable subscribers left to find a mate willing to splash out a steep £6.99 per month, or to find an accommodating club house, as those Wimbledon fans did. Further prospective viewers were put off by the GAA test transmissions, described on various Gaelic sports forums as anything from “scratchy” to “unwatchable”.

Speaking on the Non-League Football Show on January 10, Richard Webb, Premier’s media representative, revealed little about the deal’s small print. Webb claimed Premier is “well over halfway” to their revenue sharing agreement target, the point at which clubs start to make money. This needs to be put into context with the original statement saying that the share would kick in after a “nominal” level of take-up – which apparently remains a way off

Webb continued that specific figures “can’t be discussed” because “then you’ll know what the revenue-sharing target is” which seems horribly vague when one of the main tenets of the channel’s marketing is emotionally blackmailing fans to subscribe. What was clear is that Premier is walking a financial tightrope. They pulled out of broadcasting Darlington v Barrow on January 3, thinking the game would be frozen off – but it wasn’t. An extraordinary statement later appeared on the channel’s Facebook page, blaming the farrago on inaccurate weather forecasts and the amount of office staff on holiday, but trumpeting that it had fully compensated the “three people who signed up online under the presumption this game was going ahead on TV”. Webb apologised, saying Premier were keen not to lose “between £15,000 to £20,000” due to a late postponement. “We just don’t want to throw away money and jeopardise the amount of games we’re showing,” he argued. He refused to discuss if there was a break clause under which Premier could leave the three-year deal early.

In the light of such horror stories, it has to be pointed out that this viewer’s first experience of Premier’s coverage was pretty good. The presentation is well realised – nothing too flash, taking the best bits of Setanta’s much-loved (within non-League, anyway), intimate coverage. Premier has also stuck with a commentary team who know their Conference onions in the amiable Steve Bower and Ian Snodin, a man so enthusiastic he blurted out that it’s 32 metres between the stand and the pitch at the Gateshead International Stadium in his first line.

It’s really the much-maligned Conference board that have their (faint) credibility on the line, having reportedly rejected a pre-season BBC offer to screen a highlights package. The truth of why they’ve plumped for such a speculative deal goes back to the golden era of Setanta’s fawning. It seems the Conference board are the only people who don’t fully understand that will never be repeated, and why the Irish broadcaster’s UK arm went under.

From WSC 289 March 2011