According to press reports this evening, the Blue Square Premier has been unable to reach agreement with the new boy in the British pay television market, ESPN. This comes as no great surprise. For one thing, lower division football doesn’t exactly fit in with the profile that the nascent channel has built up over the last couple of months, a profile based upon top European football, Premier League football and American sports. The other reason that it isn’t much of a surprise is that their schedule is, broadly speaking, full. When ESPN bought up the rights to Europa League football that wasn’t being shown by Five, it was effectively filling the gap that Setanta, the previous rights holders, used to fill with BSP football.
ESPN’s decision was also a blow to the egos of some within the self-styled “fifth division”, who may have been hoping that a raft of bigger names such as Oxford United, Luton Town and Wimbledon may have proved more enticing to the broadcaster – as recently reported on here, a crowd of over 10,500 people recently watched the match between Oxford United and Luton Town, an extraordinary crowd for a match in this league at this early stage in the season. An ESPN spokesman certainly stuck a pin in that particular bubble, though. “ESPN has a lot of top-quality football”, he said, “We met Blue Square Premier but decided that it did not make business sense for us to show the league on the channel at this time”. Ouch.
Which way now, then, for the Blue Square Premier? Setanta were roundly (and rightly) praised for their BSP television coverage. It was fresh, innovative and covered the league in detail, on its own terms and without patronising it. It also, however, feathered the beds of its member clubs a little too much. The money – around £80,000 per year on average, though this was higher for clubs that appeared in more live matches – was unprecedented for clubs of this size, and when Setanta bit the dust during the summer the harsh truth of the matter was (and still is) that they weren’t going to get a television deal that was going to pay anything like that much again. The media is in a more depressed state than at any in the last twenty years, and the BSP had hardly been a profit-maker for Setanta.
More troubling still has been the behaviour of the Football Conference over the last couple of months over this matter. They have been stating publicly for the last couple of months that they were on the brink of a new television deal, but as the season started and no firm announcement was made, the likelihood of such a deal being worth anything to the clubs started to recede dramatically. The BBC had spent comparatively heavy on Football League rights, which are a large logistical exercise and fill a sizeable hole in their schedule. The other free-to-air commercial broadcasters showed no interest, and Sky Sports, for years the default fall-back option for administrators after the collapse of television details, don’t seem interested either.
It was not entirely the Football Conference’s fault – the Setanta collapse couldn’t have come at a much worse time – but the fact of the matter is that most broadcasters arrange their scheduling weeks or months in advance. The market for television companies that will slice open their schedules for something that not that many people will probably watch and pay for the privilege of it is clearly more limited than the Conference imagined, though. The league does need to resist the temptation to sidestep collective bargaining, though. It may be tempting to allow the bigger clubs in the league to strike their own deals and leave the flotsam and jetsam to rot, but for the good of competition in the league, this must not be allowed to happen.
All of which leads us onto the potentially thorny topic of streaming internet broadcasts. The Unibond League’s disastrous flirtation with the live streaming of matches a couple of years ago may temper their rush into this market, particularly on a pay-per-view basis. For an organisation the size of the Football Conference, the logistics of streaming matches and doing it in a professional fashion could prove to be accepted. The idea of a slightly confused man in an echoey cardboard “studio” tripping and stumbling over camcorder highlights of a match between Forest Green Rovers and Grays Athletic might be a stretch too far for even the most ardent of us. They also need to bear in mind that streaming broadband will cost them in viewer numbers, as a proportion of their potential viewership will have no way
Non-league football, if it is to be broadcast at all, needs to be handled with kid gloves. It needs to be professionally done, to enhance the product and not make it look ridiculous when held up in direct comparison with other shows featuring bigger clubs. It needs to be accessible, allowing as many people to see it as possible, and if it is to be on pay-TV, then it needs to be priced competitively. Above everything else, it is essential that it is not patronising – Blue Square Premier football (and lower) is obviously completely valid in its own right, and to suggest otherwise would be an insult to the thousands of people that watch it week in, week out. ESPN may or may not have been the ideal choice for the Football Conference, but now that any proposed deal with them would seem to be lies in tatters, it is critical that the next decision that they take over who broadcasts the Blue Square Premier – and where & how they broadcast it – is the right one.