In no small part, the print media and the film and music industries both made the same mistake with the arrival of the internet. They both reacted to slowly at first to the new technology and both are repenting their tardiness at their leisure. The print media have been unable – yet – to find a method that successfully been able raise revenue from the shift to online viewing (and the silence from The Times after their paywall went up would seem to indicate that the numbers probably haven’t been spectacular, although Rupert Murdoch has described them as “strong”), but how will football, which has been happily wedded to television for the last two decades or so, react to changes in viewing habits?
On the surface, subscriber levels could be regarded as healthy. Sky has approaching ten million subscribers, and a sizeable proportion of them pay extra for their sports packages. They continue to lead the field in some forms of innovation at least, such as showing matches in 3D and their commitment to High Definition broadcasting, and Premier League television revenues have continued to rise with each new contract, although whether this will continue if Sky’s legal challenge to the OFT’s ruling on their dominance in the pay-TV market remains to be seen. However, the collapse of Setanta Sports last summer demonstrated that nothing is certain in the new media age of the twenty-first century and few would want to hazard a guess at where the media landscape will be in ten or twenty years’ time.
As with newspapers and music, the internet is the beast that needs to be tamed if the money is to keep flowing into football. It could be another cash cow to be milked dry on both the domestic and international markets but, on the other hand, it will require careful treatment and innovative thinking to bring the best out of the medium without ruining the culture of our game. Even in Britain (where we still lag behind many other countries in some respects), average broadband speeds are now sufficient to be able to stream live video, even if we are some way off being able to stream in high definition with any degree of reliability. Why, though, isn’t this being taken advantage of to the extent that it perhaps should be?
Part of the reason is that the FA will not allow matches that kick off at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon to be shown live on the television or online in the UK. There is a good reason for this, of course. There is plenty of reason to believe that Premier League matches being shown live on the television at the same time as other matches would decimate attendances at lower league matches, after all. Filling this void has come a large number of streaming websites showing matches that do kick off at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, but the evidence seems to be that very few people actually watch these matches on the internet. A recent YouGov poll indicated that just 2% of respondents intended to stream matches using a computer over the course of this season.
A large part of the problem would seem to be a logistical one. Do people want to spend an hour and three quarters hunched over a laptop screen, watching a match on a 4″x3″ window? The answer to that is that this may soon become a thing of the past. Most flat screen televisions come with a socket which allows the television to be converted into a computer monitor, and this alternative usage of the television set may well become more commonplace in the future. The other logistical issue would be likely to be picture quality. Internet feeds still suffer because of the strains of streaming video footage, and “buffering” is commonplace. Streaming video is expensive for the content providers as well as the viewer on account of the amount of bandwidth required if is to be watchable.
As time goes on these issues will resolve themselves, in all likelihood, but the danger for the football authorities is that, unless the likes of the Premier League and the Football League become early adopters of the infrastructure required to stream matches at a high resolution, the public will (as they did with online newspapers and, to an extent, with the downloading of music) become so used to getting it for nothing, even if the quality is inferior, that they will not pay for legitimate live football over the internet when it does start to become the norm, and that this could become a major issue for the game if it is not careful. There may not be many people deserting their Sky subscriptions for illegal streams at present, but if this were to happen current television packages would become significantly less valuable than they currently are.
The desire to watch live matches on the move may be limited, but ESPN have launched an application for the iphone which will bring highlights packages to people’s mobile phones, but it seems doubtful that this will bring in much more than what would be small change, financially speaking, to the broadcasters and, therefore, ultimately the clubs themselves. Still, at least the Premier League finally seem to have cottoned onto the fact that, until recently, there were too few ways to watch their competition, even if there was more of it to watch than ever before. Still, though, there are limitations – “Match Of The Day” is still not available on BBC’s Iplayer service (although “Match Of The Day 2″, the show’s Sunday night little brother, finally is), meaning that viewers that are out at 10.30 on a Saturday night and want to catch up with the programme but don’t have a hard drive recorder have little choice but to download a torrent of the programme.Yahoo’s online highlights, being shown for the first time this season after they won the rights to them from Virgin Media, amount to little more than three minutes of each match.
What we know from history is that, in terms of this sort of issue, those who strike first are likely to succeed. Sky Sports gambled on the Premier League in 1992 and, whether rightly or wrongly, there can be little question that it paid off handsomely for them, if perhaps not for the rest of us. We also know, from the experience of the print media and the film & music industries that something different has to be offered to persuade people to pay online, and that even this may not guarantee them the sort of revenue that they may feel entitled to. It is easy for Richard Scudamore to make statements such as, “A good service with a strong partner is important to us both in terms of accessibility and complementing live coverage”, but turning this into cold, hard cash seems likely to be a very tall order indeed.