No Agreement Between The BSP & ESPN

15 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   September 16, 2009  |     6

According to press reports this evening, the Blue Square Premier has been unable to reach agreement with the new boy in the British pay television market, ESPN. This comes as no great surprise. For one thing, lower division football doesn’t exactly fit in with the profile that the nascent channel has built up over the last couple of months, a profile based upon top European football, Premier League football and American sports. The other reason that it isn’t much of a surprise is that their schedule is, broadly speaking, full. When ESPN bought up the rights to Europa League football that wasn’t being shown by Five, it was effectively filling the gap that Setanta, the previous rights holders, used to fill with BSP football.

ESPN’s decision was also a blow to the egos of some within the self-styled “fifth division”, who may have been hoping that a raft of bigger names such as Oxford United, Luton Town and Wimbledon may have proved more enticing to the broadcaster – as recently reported on here, a crowd of over 10,500 people recently watched the match between Oxford United and Luton Town, an extraordinary crowd for a match in this league at this early stage in the season. An ESPN spokesman certainly stuck a pin in that particular bubble, though. “ESPN has a lot of top-quality football”, he said, “We met Blue Square Premier but decided that it did not make business sense for us to show the league on the channel at this time”. Ouch.

Which way now, then, for the Blue Square Premier? Setanta were roundly (and rightly) praised for their BSP television coverage. It was fresh, innovative and covered the league in detail, on its own terms and without patronising it. It also, however, feathered the beds of its member clubs a little too much. The money – around £80,000 per year on average, though this was higher for clubs that appeared in more live matches – was unprecedented for clubs of this size, and when Setanta bit the dust during the summer the harsh truth of the matter was (and still is) that they weren’t going to get a television deal that was going to pay anything like that much again. The media is in a more depressed state than at any in the last twenty years, and the BSP had hardly been a profit-maker for Setanta.

More troubling still has been the behaviour of the Football Conference over the last couple of months over this matter. They have been stating publicly for the last couple of months that they were on the brink of a new television deal, but as the season started and no firm announcement was made, the likelihood of such a deal being worth anything to the clubs started to recede dramatically. The BBC had spent comparatively heavy on Football League rights, which are a large logistical exercise and fill a sizeable hole in their schedule. The other free-to-air commercial broadcasters showed no interest, and Sky Sports, for years the default fall-back option for administrators after the collapse of television details, don’t seem interested either.

It was not entirely the Football Conference’s fault – the Setanta collapse couldn’t have come at a much worse time – but the fact of the matter is that most broadcasters arrange their scheduling weeks or months in advance. The market for television companies that will slice open their schedules for something that not that many people will probably watch and pay for the privilege of it is clearly more limited than the Conference imagined, though. The league does need to resist the temptation to sidestep collective bargaining, though. It may be tempting to allow the bigger clubs in the league to strike their own deals and leave the flotsam and jetsam to rot, but for the good of competition in the league, this must not be allowed to happen.

All of which leads us onto the potentially thorny topic of streaming internet broadcasts. The Unibond League’s disastrous flirtation with the live streaming of matches a couple of years ago may temper their rush into this market, particularly on  a pay-per-view basis. For an organisation the size of the Football Conference, the logistics of streaming matches and doing it in a professional fashion could prove to be accepted. The idea of a slightly confused man in an echoey cardboard “studio” tripping and stumbling over camcorder highlights of a match between Forest Green Rovers and Grays Athletic might be a stretch too far for even the most ardent of us. They also need to bear in mind that streaming broadband will cost them in viewer numbers, as a proportion of their potential viewership will have no way

Non-league football, if it is to be broadcast at all, needs to be handled with kid gloves. It needs to be professionally done, to enhance the product and not make it look ridiculous when held up in direct comparison with other shows featuring bigger clubs. It needs to be accessible, allowing as many people to see it as possible, and if it is to be on pay-TV, then it needs to be priced competitively. Above everything else, it is essential that it is not patronising – Blue Square Premier football (and lower) is obviously completely valid in its own right, and to suggest otherwise would be an insult to the thousands of people that watch it week in, week out. ESPN may or may not have been the ideal choice for the Football Conference, but now that any proposed deal with them would seem to be lies in tatters, it is critical that the next decision that they take over who broadcasts the Blue Square Premier – and where & how they broadcast it – is the right one.



Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • September 16, 2009 at 8:51 am

    ESPN not interested in BSP - - Wrexham

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  • September 16, 2009 at 9:39 am


    Well I’m pleased. Setanta messed about with the published fixture list and some fans who purchased a season ticket found they couldn’t attend the rearranged fixture. My own club went a couple of months without a home match on a Saturday. Good riddance to them. OK all clubs lost money but it was a levellling of the playing field with the clubs that featured most like Oxford losing more revenue.

  • September 16, 2009 at 10:16 am


    ‘Setanta were roundly (and rightly) praised for their BSP television coverage. It was fresh, innovative and covered the league in detail, on its own terms and without patronising it.’

    Really? It certainly didn’t feel like that at the time:

  • September 16, 2009 at 10:21 am


    As a fan of a Conference club I am not too concerned. No messing about with my Saturday for a start.

    But let’s be realistic, as opposed to the Conference board who obviously weren’t , it’s a pretty poor product for the money Setanta paid, and the Conf board hoped ESPN would too.

    It’s Level 5 football, plain and simple, and just because we like it (because our clubs are in that division), I can’t see many flocking to watch Hayes & Yeading vs Forest Green Rovers on a Thursday, in person OR on TV.

    I think the Conf board are as deluded about their product as the Ryman League with Alan Turvey and his streaming webcasts.

  • September 16, 2009 at 10:36 am


    Hardly surprising news. Setanta’s speculative business model was probably a one-off. Do any other countries regularly televise division 5 or equivalent football? I very much doubt it. Back to the real world.

  • September 16, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    The Sweeper: The End of the Peter Kenyon Era at Chelsea FC | Pitch Invasion

    […] weighs in on ESPN’s rejection of any deal to broadcast the Blue Square Premier League: “ESPN may or may not have been the ideal choice for the Football Conference, but now that any proposed deal with them would seem to be lies in tatters, it is critical that the next decision that they take over who broadcasts the Blue Square Premier – and where & how they broadcast it – is the right one.” […]

  • September 16, 2009 at 3:52 pm


    Well up to a point Martin, but it may also be true that no other country in the world has a fifth tier which inspires such interest. It’s something pretty special to English football, I think.

    That’s not to say the audience is that big for it, nor to deny that – in general – the lower down the scale a game takes place, the more you really need to be present to enjoy it. But still, I doubt that you can go to any other country and regularly watch games in the fifth division whose spectators treat thme as if they were the most important game happening anywhere.

  • September 16, 2009 at 4:19 pm


    While the BSP is level five football, it is a division capable of crowds of 10,000 – so there is a potential audience, and there are comparable leagues (in terms of attendance, if nothing else) that have TV elsewhere. I’m sure that I read somewhere that the BSP games got better viewing figures than some of the Scottish Premier games shown.

    In terms of Sky and ESPN, the BSP isn’t a good ‘fit’, but a weekly programme could work on, say, ITV4 or somewhere. I guess it depends on the production costs of a simple set-up, but it could be a reasonably cheap way for a channel to add some more sports content.

    Streaming video could work if the production team worked within their limitations. A simple stream, maybe even commentator-less, might have an audience at the right price.

    Whether it could actually make any money is another matter though…

  • September 16, 2009 at 4:32 pm


    No mention of the million quid that the Prem has just given the Conference? They now, arguably, don’t need the TV revenue as much and so can lower the year one price at least.

  • September 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm


    Last season Ebbsfleet fans were able to watch some home matches streamed live overseas, and while the product wasn’t great quality, it’s better than nothing. I’m not sure the cost, but it was pretty low. MyFC licensed the rights from Setanta at about 1200 pounds per match, and added our own commentators. We had hoped that donations from overseas fans would pay for the cost but fell wuite short. I know this wouldn’t have work with English fans because of the licensing issues (black-outs on game day), but we did look into the issue of doing it all ourselves, and while the required input from volunteers was quite high, it could be done. If the BSP allowed the broadcast, the cost would be low, and a fee could be paid to the BSP for the licensing. Or something like that. Not my area of expertise, obviously.

  • September 17, 2009 at 10:10 am


    Damon – the £1m (ooh, how can they afford it!!!) will hardly compensate for the Setanta money. £80k + money from matches against £25k. A massive shortfall still and I doubt even at 30% discount there would be any takers for the package.

    Bottom line is that the money is irrelevant – clubs shouldn’t have spent what they didn’t have, and especially as it was fairly common knowledge that Setanta were struggling a year ao.

  • September 17, 2009 at 10:21 am


    Our level 5 may be more attractive than other countries but I think some of you are quite naive and biased about its competitiveness and attractiveness as a commercial proposition.

  • September 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm


    I’m sure i read last season that the Conference viewing figures actually compared quite well with the Scottish football which Setanta also covered and ESPN have now picked up.

    I think Setanta actually marketed the league quite well with its “real football” advertising. The Conference is a nice antidote for those who don’t wet themselves at the thought of yet another Man U v Chelsea toss up for the Premiership…

    It’s a real shame that this deal didn’t go through and you have to wonder whether the Conference authorities who have shown themselves to be thoroughly incompetent in the past have blown it again here by trying to get too much money…

  • September 18, 2009 at 2:58 pm


    Bob Hope observed that it was a shame that the people who could best run the country were all driving taxis, and one may make the same observation about television deals and people on the internet.

  • September 18, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Sean of the Shed

    I can’t see many flocking to watch Hayes & Yeading vs Forest Green Rovers on a Thursday, in person OR on TV.
    This is an often repeated argument and holds no water. No TV channel would select this match for live broadcast. If Hayes or FGR had their own TV stations, THEY probably wouldn’t select this match. Channels select matches with the broadest appeal, and there are some appeaing clubs in this division. It may be a niche market, but it still has more potential(in Britain anyway) than other niche sports like ice hockey and basketball. The Setanta deal was an awesome deal, but the amount they shelled out was disproportionate to the value of the product. ESPN could see this and the Conference could and should have been able to come to some compromise

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