Sometimes, comments that I have seen on the television or in the papers take lodge in my head, sit there and fester. About three weeks ago, though, a comment made on the television has started to overtake my waking hours, and it’s a comment that, in an almost abstract fashion, says about as much as you need to know about the modern game in Britain. I have to say that I don’t watch “Match Of The Day” as much as I probably should these days (I normally manage to catch a couple of live matches and “Match Of The Day 2″ on Sunday nights) but, three weeks ago, when Chelsea played Manchester United, I thought I should make an exception. I’d been to a match that afternoon and had missed the drama unfolding live, but even I realised that this was quite an important match in terms of deciding the outcome of the Premier League title. So, cue Gary Lineker and his strangely cheap looking shirts, and the “Match Of The Day” studio, which is half-way between the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise and the Duty Free shop on a cross channel ferry. Gary winked conspiratorially and took us over to Jonathan Pearce at Stamford Bridge.
What happened next is what has been troubling me for a few weeks now. To put no fine a point on it, as the players were coming out onto the pitch, Pearce stated that “almost a billion people are watching” the match. Over the next couple of days, I had a look around to see if anyone else had picked up on this statement, but they seemed not to have done. On the Monday after the match, I took the unusual step of buying almost all of the daily papers, but no-one mentioned it. I started to think that maybe he hadn’t said it at all. It all ended up in the slightly farcical sight of me frantically downloading that episode of “Match Of The Day”, to confirm whether he had said it or not. He had, and I’ve got the proof. As the players come out onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge, Jonathan Pearce says, “nearly a billion people worldwide are watching this brunch crunch”. Leaving aside the linguistic clunkiness of the phrase “brunch crunch” for a moment, this is a statement that really managed to get under my skin, and I’ll have a go at explaining why.
The thing is, it’s untrue, and it’s untrue in several respects. Firstly, in spite of considerable amounts of debate in the letters page of “When Saturday Comes”, the BBC still sends its commentators to at least its featured match. It is, therefore, safe to assume that Pearce’s commentary was “live” – that’s to say, it’s what he said as the teams came out onto the pitch. Out of curiosity, how could he conceivably had any clue what the television audience for this match was? Indeed, global television audiences aren’t just exceptionally difficult to predict. It’s very, very difficult to state even days after the event what the global television audience for something was. For example, the largest ever global television audience for a football match (and, yes, I will be coming back to this) was for the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy, which was reported variously as being watched by between 500m and 750m people. The fact of the matter is that no-one knows what the global television audience for that match was.
Secondly, it is clearly an over-exaggerated figure, plucked, it would appear completely from thin air. As I noted above, the highest ever television audience for a live football match was between 500m and 750m, for the 2006 World Cup final. I’m not saying for a second that there is no global demand for the Premier League, and neither am I saying that interest would be slight. However, to suggest that between fifty and one hundred percent more people would be watching this match than World Cup final strikes me as being hyperbole of the first order. I recently read an article on the UEFA website which speculated on a global television audience of “over 100 million” people. Was Jonathan Pearce suggesting that more people are interested in the Premier League than in the Champions League? Nine or ten times more people? I mean, surely all Manchester United and Chelsea supporters know that the Champions League is more important than the Premier League, don’t they?
Finally, I scanned the papers on Monday morning, and no-one mentioned the global television viewing audience at all. I’m almost certainly alone in this viewpoint (and I may be slightly old fashioned in this respect), but I do rather feel that football commentators are, ultimately, journalists and, as such, have a duty to at least tell the truth, as opposed to plucking random figures from thin air because they sound impressive. So, a splash of hubris, a dash of hype, and all built on an arbitrary figure that was plucked from thin air and almost certainly bears no relevance to the truth. How apt, for the Premier League.