By Aaran Dehal
“Televised games drive me round the bend. The game as I and the ordinary working men knew it has changed almost beyond recognition. I used to regard it as the rape of football, but after more thought I prefer to call it the prostitution of football, the game ‘on the game’ since television people set it awash with money. The fans are deserving of sympathy. They still love it but it’s costing them a fortune – not only to watch matches live but often when they watch it from the comfort of their own home.” – Brian Clough
The state of football as we know it today summed up as eloquently as only the legendary late Brian Clough could do.
With the amount of money that has been pumped into the game over the last 20 years now reaching obscene levels which leave most football fans feeling disenchanted with the state of the game, the question on many of their minds is; who exactly is to blame?
Who has prostituted the game to the point where genuine fans are left behind to make way for the prawn-sandwich brigade?
Some tend to blame the introduction of Sky Sports, whilst others blame the formation of the English Premier League and the fat cats that run it. Yet surely, to blame one is to blame the other?
Let me take you back to where it all began in 1992, when, what was then known as, the Football League First Division broke away from the F.A. and the Football League to take advantage of the bidding war between ITV and Sky over the rights to broadcast, what would be known as, English Premier League matches.
Rupert Murdoch’s Sky won the bidding war, with its £302 million bid blowing ITVs’ bid right out of the water.
This here was the first example of football being taken away from the common fan. Instead of us being able to watch live top division games on TV for free (essentially), fans would now have to pay extra to watch televised games.
It would have been nice if supporters groups were consulted on how they would feel about the switch over, but as you can imagine, how the fans felt meant nothing to the men who were effectively running the beautiful game.
Now I will be the first to admit, having grown up with Sky Sports always covering football, and whilst the coverage is fantastic, the cost of having to watch a game through your television is nothing short of extortion.
Football fans that own, for example, a basic Sky TV package would have to shell out an extra £20.25 a month. That comes to around £243 a year. This is a lot of money to an average working person who only wants to watch the live football games, especially as a season tends to last between 9 and 10 months, so most of the time there won’t even be any competitive football to watch.
Then there are those who own a Virgin Media box. They would have to shell out between £22.50 and £28 a month, depending on their package deal, that could potentially cost them between £270 and £336 a year.
Those sums of money are ridiculous to ask your average fans to pay. Especially when for two/three months there isn’t even any competitive football on TV. Whilst Sky Sports televises a range of sports programmes and many people will watch the other sports, it is primarily the football games that are the most popular to enable the ardent football followers to get their regular football fix.
That doesn’t take into account those who actually follow their team; home or away. I tend to go and watch my team play live, so do I or other football fans really want to pay that much a month to watch the games of football teams that do not really concern our teams, especially when I can watch the highlights on Match of The Day or even, whisper it, the Internet?
Of course I wouldn’t want to and I know a lot of others who wouldn’t want to either.
Yet Stephen Morrow, the Head of The Department of Sports Studies at the University of Stirling, is not entirely convinced that fans are being over charged for their coverage.
“I’m not entirely convinced we are being over charged. If you actually put it into context and look at the coverage we receive, is the price really that expensive?
“You have 3D and HD coverage now so I think you get value for money. If you want to consume football then the price available is not overly expensive for what you get. However, ticket prices are another story.”
‘Having the Sky Sports package is optional’ I can hear some of you shout. In a sense, yes the choice is solely down to us to choose whether we want to have Sky Sports or not.
But is it really our choice?
The simple answer to that is no.
The reason for this, and one of the reasons people lay the blame for the state of football squarely at the feet of Sky, is because Sky has too much of a hold over football coverage.
It has monopolised the coverage of our game. Fans can’t go anywhere else; they don’t have the choice. Terrestrial channels such as the BBC and ITV get the occasional F.A. Cup game, Champions League tie and Premiership highlights show, but it is small potatoes when compared to the hold Rupert Murdoch’s Sky has.
Sky Sports own 5 of the 6 packages, while ESPN (who stepped in following the collapse of the doomed Setanta) holds the other package. ESPN at least offer a welcome and refreshing break for fans that subscribe to Virgin Media’s XL TV pack, which will allow them to view these games for free but it is still important to remember ESPN is not a non-pay television service and the XL package is still relatively expensive; so in essence the viewer is still playing for ESPN.
Sky Sports will show an unprecedented 115 games live, which has led some believe that you are still getting value for money, but this statistic alone shows how much control Sky truly holds.
The likes of the BBC and ITV cannot hope to break this hold due to the financial muscle Sky has, leaving ESPN as the only viable competition. Some fans just cannot catch a break, can they?
Another way, in which I believe Sky has changed monopolised football coverage, is how it controls when and what time football matches are now played.
Gone are the days of the traditional 3pm kick offs, with clubs forced to play on several different days. Games can be played at midday or 5.30pm on a Saturday, while you have the 1pm and 4pm kick off times to accommodate “Super Sunday”, not to mention the return of Monday Night Football and its 7.45pm kick off times. That’s not including Tuesday and Wednesday night games either.
That’s only our domestic top division.
Gone are the days when the common working fan would finish work on a Friday, knowing that they would watch their side play the following day at 3pm.
Fans now sometimes have to wait till Sunday to watch their side play and if that isn’t bad enough, fans may have to change their plans for a mid-week fixture to accommodate a 7.45pm kick off time, not to mention the impact is holds on the younger generation of fans.
Can these young kids (aged 4-10), who want to follow their team, really go to a mid-week game, knowing they probably won’t get home to bed till potentially 10.30pm when they have to be up early the next day for school?
Ok maybe I am being a tad dramatic there, but I remember how much I would have to plead with my mom to let me go to a mid-week game and I do know some parents that would not allow it.
If I’m 100% honest on those rare occasions I did go to a mid-week game, especially early on, I would tend to fall asleep during the second half, curling myself up on the seat. Obviously the game/atmosphere wasn’t as great as I tend to remember then but that tends to put parents off allowing their kids to go or watch these late games.
However I suppose Sky’s not too fussed about these fans; as long as they get their viewer subscriptions and their ratings remain high, they can sleep easy at night knowing that they are doing their job and who can blame them?
One person that doesn’t blame them is Stephen Morrow.
“I think with the amount of money that Sky pumps into football, the control should be expected. I know some fans will disagree as from a social stand point the results are not desirable. But I don’t believe that Sky has too much of a hold over football, at least not for the amount of money in puts into the game.
And he’s right; the blame cannot and should not be directed solely at Sky. Yes they should take their share of the blame but those in charge of the Premier League clubs must also shoulder some of the blame for, as Cloughie said, ‘prostituting our game’.
Instead of putting the needs of the fans first, they thought of lining their pockets instead. They are the ones who have set us on this path with Sky, and unless something is done, football fans will continually end up out of pocket.
The business men that run these, sorry, our, clubs have become increasingly greedy. You only have to look at the amount the average fan has to pay to follow his/her team. The fans, the life-blood of any football club, are being taken for granted and I’m not sure that the fans can take much more of it.
These money men have saddled most of our beloved clubs with debt, with money gained from Sky and used that money to pump up players’ wages and blow on ridiculous transfer fees. The clubs have become reliant on the television money that they receive.
It helps to keep them going. At least it is the case with the big clubs.
Who ends up suffering when club games are at the mercy of Sky?
Yes, us, the fans. It’s our schedule that gets interrupted because of Sky re-arranging fixtures for their own benefit.
Yet what can the fans really be expected to do?
They will follow their clubs through thick and thin and will continue to do so until their patience is at long last broken and believe me, that time is edging ever closer.