Perhaps we are now so used to the gamesmanship of Sir Alex Ferguson in press conferences and interviews that we now look for subliminal messages in everything he says without even thinking about it. His comments yesterday on the nature of the relationship between football and television have certainly provoked debate, though, not least from those that have chosen to reflect upon the irony of the manager of a club that has arguably benefited more than any other from the expansion of television rights into being the main financial mover in the modern game commenting on the influence of broadcasters being to “shake hands with the devil.”
It is worth taking a moment to recall just far the relationship between football and television has come over the course of the last two or three decades or so. When the regular television league football began with Match Of The Day in 1964, we saw the introduction of a format that would remain largely unchanged for the next two decades. Initially, the BBC would send cameras to one match – expanded to two at the start of the 1970s – and the viewer would be stuck with extended highlights of that, regardless of the quality of the match on offer.
ITV, meanwhile, expanded their regional coverage of the game after their franchises were reorganised in 1968 and London Weekend Television’s Jimmy Hill would introduce a more analytical aspect to coverage of the game, but the basic format – highlights of two matches and the goals from a third – would remain the same until the early 1980s. Live football would remain a luxury, reserved for the FA Cup Final, the European Cup Final and occasional international matches, until the deal of 1983 which saw Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest play the first live Football League match of the new era.
It is over the last two decades that the broadcasting companies have come to build such a close relationship with the governing bodies that it has become, at times, difficult to separate the two. Indeed, so closely have they become entwined that, if we take his comments at face value, the biggest surprise about what Alex Ferguson had to say is that it took him so long to notice. The Premier League weekend has been scheduled for the benefit of a global audience. Lunchtime and tea-time kick-offs on a Saturday are in place for audiences in Asia and North America respectively, and the scheduling of fixtures for “Super Sunday” programmes has become a fact of life in the Premier League.
The relationship is mutually beneficial for the clubs of the Premier League and the broadcasting companies, if not necessarily for the clubs that compete within the bubble of their product. On the one hand, the decision to spend lavishly on live Premier League coverage in the early 1990s is widely regarded as been the decision which saved the viability of Sky Sports at the time. On the other, meanwhile, the clubs of the Premier League have benefitted from what could be regarded as a cycle of perpetual windfall. Aided by more lucrative deals for rights sales abroads, the Premier League’s current television revenue, which ends at the end of next season, has been worth £3.5bn, and it is this money beyond anything else which has allowed the clubs of the Premier League to continue trading as if recession-proof while the cold chill of reality has swept through economy in a broader sense.
Manchester United, though, are rapidly becoming divorced from the commercial realities of even the rest of the Premier League. The club’s global commercial revenues are now so great that even television money may come to be less important to them over time although it will continue, for the foreseeable future, to be the biggest driving factor behind the club’s success abroad. Ferguson’s complaints about the way that the fixture list is compiled seems to overlook a couple of critical details about how these schedules are drawn up and the inherently conflicting interests that affect them.
For one thing, the current fixture bloat at this time of year is dictated by European matches which often feel superfluous, and this is a situation that will likely only become worse over time, especially if a breakway European Super League comes to fruition. The business needs of the Premier League requires a constant stream of matches, and this has the knock-on effect of meaning that the number of matches that clubs will be expected to play only seems likely to increase over time. One of the criticisms offered on the subject of reducing to competitive fixture calendar has been the suggestion that the biggest clubs would only plug any gaps in the traditional calendar with lucrative exhibition matches abroad if this were to happen.
If the scheduling of matches is arguably more problematic than it may at first seem, then the question of the “value” of the rights that broadcasters hold is even more subjective. Value, by it’s very definition, is not absolute and, if anything, the Premier League has been fortunate in that its broadcasting revenues have continued to dramatically increase in recent years as the media landscape has become more and more fragmented. There are several different ways in which we could interpret Ferguson’s assertion that rights holders are not paying enough for rights. If we consider that the overall rights are only worth what someone will pay for them, then we must turn our attention to how this money is divided up once paid.
The arguably comparatively even split of television money between the clubs of the Premier League is one of the few remaining sops in the direction of parity within the league. Even so, though, the likes of Manchester United are still massively enriched by making more television appearances than other clubs on the television – although these are capped at an upper level – as well as, of course, from Champions League revenue, which the club has been enjoying perpetually since 1993. It may well be, of course, that Ferguson is looking towards Spain and the revenues earned by Real Madrid and Barcelona since the end of the collective signing of television deals several years ago (both clubs make comfortably more than Manchester United do from their television contracts) but, while it would hardly be surprising to see a Premier League manager decrying how unfair it is that his club has to share this financial pot with smaller clubs, there is nothing concrete to suggest that the clubs of the league themselves have any plans to seek to end this particular protocol in England, at least.
Some have also chosen to interpret Ferguson’s words as being in some way an exercise in smoothing the way over the debate for a European Super League, and this is a matter that we will return to later in the week. For now, though, it is perhaps merely worth reflecting upon the power of Ferguson’s words. The interview from which his comments were taken was with BBC North-West, shortly after the end of a lengthy exile. There can be little doubting that this is someone that holds – or has the capacity to hold – enormous power over the game. Regardless of whether we agree with what he said on the subject of television and football, if storm clouds are to grow and the immediate future of club and international football in Europe is to become increasingly fractious, it is to be hoped that he will use his power wisely, and for the greater good of all of football. We shall see.
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