It was noted at the time of the Dream Football League fiasco, in which a journalist from The Times newspaper was hoodwinked by the odd combination of a French football website and a fantasist with a chequered past over a non-existent story about the oil-rich of Qatar creating a super league paying absurd amounts of money to the biggest club sides in the world, that it was entirely possible that this story was likely to make somebody, somewhere start stroking their chin and wondering if this wasn’t something that they could make a reality. And whilst we are in the middle of football’s “silly season” for outlandish news stories, it hardly seems surprising that Rupert Murdoch is now being reported to be the man thinking exactly that.
There has long been a school of thought that Murdoch’s interest in football was never going to end with the mere televising of football matches. He attempted, of course, to buy Manchester United at the end of of the last century and, whilst this particular venture ended up being unsuccessful (although, it should be pointed out, only after the intervention of the Monopolies & Mergers Commission and not as a result of any intervention from within the game itself), his companies’ interests have come to define the calendar of the domestic season, with kick-off times routinely shifted and shunted about to suit their programme scheduling, whilst all football clubs – in particularly those of the Premier League – have come to find themselves to a lesser or greater extent dependent on the money that his television deals earn them.
The plans that have been leaked to the press are perhaps predictably sketchy. Sixteen European clubs will be invited to play in a summer tournament at venues across the globe, with cities bidding for the rights to host the matches, which will be broadcast live on Murdoch’s channels. It is believed that a significant motivating factor behind the plans could be Fox Sports’ loss of broadcasting rights for the Premier League to NBC, who will be lavishly covering the league in in United States of America, including twenty matches which will be shown on its main network channel. This could well prove to be a pivotal season for the Premier League in a potentially hugely profitable marketplace, and as things stand Murdoch is but a mere bystander, in stark contrast with the control that he has over broadcast rights in many European countries. This, we might reasonably surmise, was not a situation that a predatory plutocrat like Murdoch was not going to allow to pass unchallenged. In addition to this we should add the suspicion that BT Sport, whose Premier League coverage begins at the start of next season, may prove to be a more formidable rival to Sky Sports than either Setanta Sports or ESPN proved to be.
Football clubs being football clubs, the desire for more money to throw at players and their agents will never be fully satiated, so it is difficult to imagine that many of them would turn down the opportunity to milk yet another cash cow. What FIFA, UEFA, the FA and perhaps even the Premier League might make of it all, however, is a little more difficult to gauge. One of football’s great selling points in recent years has been its narrative and its unity. The game’s rich history hands a storyline that can be manipulated to create a context for matches that might otherwise just be considered akin to two corporations butting each other like fighting rams. That the game hasn’t had the sort of splintering that other sports such as boxing or professional darts have suffered is also a considerable asset. The Football League feeds into the Premier League, which feeds into the Champions League, and breaking that chain would be a step into the unknown with potentially disastrous side-effects for all but the very biggest clubs.
The matter may come down to a game of dare, with the key question being that of who, between the governing bodies and the broadcasters, will blink first. FIFA, UEFA and the rest would clearly not wish to surrender their authority over the professional game without a fight, but Murdoch’s bullsihness is hardly news and “compromises” – such as UEFA’s near-capitulation over the format of the Champions League and their accommodation of the European Clubs Association and its predecessor, the G-14 – have also been reached before. It may also be significant that the ECA’s Memorandum of Understanding with UEFA, which was first agreed in 2008 and was extended in 2012 and recognises the ECA as the sole body representing the interests of clubs at European level whilst agreeing the distribution of an amount of money from that earned from hosting the European Championships to national associations for them to pass on to clubs, expires in 2018. At that point, the nature of the relationship between the governing body and its biggest clubs may be up for review, and if Rupert Murdoch can jostle for position amongst that, then the nature of professional football might well change far beyond what many would wish for.
All of this points towards football’s great unhidden truth: that match-going fans are becoming less and less important to clubs that are now desperate to unpick the lock that is football’s “emerging markets.” Managerial complaints about having to play too many matches have become muted in recent years, with clubs increasingly flaunting themselves – as was seen in the haste with which Chelsea and Manchester City departed these shores for North America for an exhibition match at the end of last season – for the benefit of a different audience. Back at home, meanwhile, anger amongst supporters over ticket prices continues to flourish into increasingly organised protests, as can be seen from the Spirit of Shankly demonstration which has been scheduled for the nineteenth of June and which has been notable for its success in bringing together fans of different clubs in the pursuit of a common goal, largely through those clubs’ supporters trusts.
Perhaps the future of professional football does lay away from these shores and those pesky football supporters and their demands for “rights.” Perhaps an overseas audience will be altogether more supine, and will be happy to have their wallets opened and its contacts extracted by Murdoch and the clubs. Meanwhile, we will be able to congregate in sports bars at inconvenient hours of the day and watch the matches on giant screens. It will be just like being there, and those who did nothing while the working classes were priced out of the game will get to experience the authentic match day experience of those who used to be able to watch “the people’s game” but can’t any more. What’s that, you say? We don’t want any of that? Probably for the best that we start doing something about it, then. Because if we don’t, the only “people” whose game this will be in a decade’s time or so will be the likes of Rupert Murdoch.
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