That money dominates all other considerations in twenty-first century professional football is a fact that has become so ubiquitous that to repeat it yet again feels almost superfluous. Yet the evidence is all around us. It’s in the desperation of some owners to rebrand their clubs to appeal to the mirage that is the infinite riches of the far east. It’s in the apparent attempted circumvention of Financial Fair Play rules by some clubs as governing bodies try to rein in their spending. And above all else, it’s in the attention lavished upon the agreement of each new television contract. The box in the corner of your living room is now professional football’s single biggest motivator. Although now frequently considered to be something of a dying medium in many respects, television still acts to football clubs as a lightbulb does to a moth, entrancing and revolting with the twin promises of round the clock coverage and riches to fritter away on scale previously unseen.
It wasn’t always like this, of course, There was a time when the number of domestic matches to be shown live on the television could be counted comfortably on the fingers of one hand. In England, the authorities were reluctant to allow the television cameras inside grounds at all. On top of their innate conservatism, there was a genuine fear on the part of those who ran clubs – not to mention those who ran the Football League and the Football Association – that the broadcasting of football on the television would lead to falls in attendances. At a time during which gate receipts made up a considerably more significant proportion of many clubs’ revenues than they do now, this was, perhaps, understandable, and it’s also true to say that crowds did decline in the years following the introduction of televised football, although this should be tempered by adding that they were always likely to fall anyway following the game’s quite remarkable post-war boom in attendances.
The first proper television contracts between broadcasters and the Football League came at the start of the 1962/63 season, although there had been a failed experiment of showing the second half of a match between Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool live on ITV is September 1960, with poor viewing figures and the money being demanded by the Football League being cited as the reasons for it being a one-off. In the north-east of England two years later, however, commercial broadcaster Tyne Tees Television signed a contract for twenty-five minutes’ worth of highlights every week, even though the region’s three biggest clubs, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, were all in the Second Division at the time. They were swiftly followed by Anglia Television, whose contract with the Football League allowed them to broadcast highlights of matches involving six of their region’s clubs – defending Football League champions Ipswich Town, Norwich City, Peterborough United and Colchester United, along with non-league Bedford Town and Cambridge United of the Southern League Premier Division – in return for the princely sum of £1,000. Those early years were difficult – Norwich City, for example, had their television gantry behind one of the goals at Carrow Road, which made recording highlights a little trickier than it might have been – but it was successful enough for the BBC to launch Match Of The Day in 1964, whilst the arrival of a handful of new, brash comapnies on ITV’s network in 1968 meant that televised football got a significant shake-up in the form of London Weekend’s The Big Match.
By the 1970s, however, things had settled down into an agreeable enough groove. The BBC and ITV alternated first choice selection of the matches to cover on a weekly basis, and contractual clauses meant that both organisations had to cover a certain number of matches from the Second, Third and Fourth Divisions of the Football League as well as the bigger clubs. The BBC showed Match Of The Day on Saturday nights, whilst the patchwork quilt of companies that made up ITV showed their programmes on a Sunday afternoon. This wasn’t, however, going to last forever. London Weekend were something of an anomaly within ITV, broadcasting only from Friday tea-times until Sunday night’s closedown, and they needed to maximise every advertising penny that they could during this time. Sport had been a key to the company’s survival after some difficult opening years. They’d inherited World Of Sport from their predecessors ABC Weekend Television and innovated with this in much the way that they did with their football coverage, giving professional wrestling a little spit and polish and introducing the popular ITV Seven, a weekly selection of horse races picked with the gambler in mind.
By the late 1970s, however, the company was becoming increasingly unhappy with the fact that Match Of The Day hogged the more lucrative Saturday night slot whilst their own show, The Big Match, was tucked away in the relative graveyard slot of Sunday lunchtimes. The catalyst for change came with the appointment of Michael Grade as the company’s Director of Programmes early in 1978. Grade had joined the company five years earlier and his promotion meant changes. London Weekend’s somewhat cumbersome name was truncated to the considerably more compact LWT, and Grade, a keen football supporter himself, next trained his sights on how he might come to radicalise ITV’s football coverage. In doing so, he would create a monster that would come to dictate a huge amount of what we understand about football and its relationship with television. The monster was the importance of exclusivity.
It was on the 7th of November 1978 that the story broke. “Snatch Of The Day” was at hand. Grade had been meeting with the Football League over the course of the previous few weeks and had agreed something that would be considered quite routine these days. It was announced that ITV had secretly offered the Football League £5 million – an absolute fortune at the time, more than three times what the BBC and ITV were paying between them at the time – for the exclusive rights to highlights of all Football League matches for the next three years. It caused absolute uproar, of course. Questions were asked in the House of Commons. How could a thing like this happen to the BBC? In the end, the BBC complained to the Office of Fair Trading, who found in their favour and forced the cancellation of the contract. The deal was off.
For ITV, the blow of missing out on this was softened somewhat when the next television contract came up, and it was agreed that the BBC and ITV should broadcast on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons on a rota, one season on, one season off. In August 1980 this came to pass, with ITV’s regional football shows on late on Saturday nights and Match Of The Day going out – albeit at a later time than most ITV companies did – on Sunday afternoons. Yet even this silver lining had holes in it. Increasing hooliganism, an increasing belief that the quality of play wasn’t as entertaining as it had been and a growing general sense of malaise within the game meant that the ITV companies didn’t benefit from it a great deal. Audiences were low, and the biggest losers were LWT themselves, for whom Saturday night advertising revenue was critical and who had to take a hit when advertising rates slumped. Live League football would eventually land in 1983 with another joint deal with the BBC and ITV, but exclusivity wouldn’t arrive until 1988, when ITV won exclusive rights on a three year contract which ended with the entrance of Sky Sports and the Premier League.
The deal may have been off, but a concept was now born. The seed of an idea had been planted. The gentlemen’s agreements of the past and the comfortable, mutually-beneficial arrangement kept costs down. There were those who considered it akin to a cartel. But now the gloves had suddenly come off. In the contract market for football coverage on the television, the BBC and ITV’s rivalry had crystallised and, although they would continue to bid together with rictus grins for a further decade, the sequence of events that followed would go on to be wholly predictable. With the advent of satellite broadcasting in the late 1980s, Sky and the BBC blew ITV’s Premier League bid out of the water. A little over two decades later another new player in the market, BT Sport, would do the same with the UEFA Champions League.
But the apocalypse that the Football League had expected in terms of attendances – to the point that Bob Lord, the chairman of Burnley and a senior executive within the Football League, unilaterally banned television cameras from Turf Moor until 1968 – never quite came, and when crowds did slump to record low levels in the middle of the 1980s, this was largely on account of what was going on in and around grounds rather than in people’s living rooms. Indeed, if the dismal years of the middle of that decade are removed from the equation, attendances have grown with increased television coverage. People, it seems, want to be at An Event, and matches being shown live on the television helps to create exactly this. A risk of saturation, however, remains and midweek lower division football attendances have been savaged in recent years by blanket coverage of the Champions League. Furthermore, the days of exclusivity in the biggest competitions are also on the wane, with European Union rulings now requiring a split of matches between different broadcasters. In spite of this, however, the pull of football remains too great for television companies to ignore, whilst the governing bodies of the game have, whether intentionally or not, created a football culture that is largely dependent upon this particular goose laying golden eggs. It’s all a far cry from winter of 1978, when the sky almost fell in over a television contract worth five million pounds.
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