Setanta may not have actually stopped breathing yet, but the last rites are being read in the media. It now seems like only a matter of time before the plug is pulled and the company disappears from our (well, some people’s) screens forever. This, however, doesn’t come without consequences and the hardest affected clubs are likely to be those that can least afford it, in the Blue Square Premier.
Setanta has been pretty kind to the BSP. In a league in which many players are still part-time, the average BSP club has been receiving around £80,000 per season from the broadcaster, plus £7,000 for every live appearance at home and £3,000 for every appearance as an away side. Cambridge United, for example, were on Setanta eleven times last season and the total loss to them will be in the region of £125,000.
This is a sizeable amount of money for clubs of this size, making up anything up to one-third or more of most club’s wage budgets. The tap has now been pulled on this source of income and, just with Football League club in the immediate aftermath of the closure of ITV Digital in 2002, there is a real concern over how that gap in funding is going to be plugged. The clubs that have so far stuck their heads above the parapets have stated that they can remain solvent without this money, but the extent to which non-league cubs are incompetently run is common knowledge. The £125,000 question, therefore, is this: how many BSP clubs have already spent the Setanta money that it is now unlikely that they will ever see?
Official confirmation came last night that the channel had suspended any further subscriptions “as a precaution”, which only serves to further the perception that the end game is well into full swing. For the clubs of the BSP (and, to a lesser extent, the clubs of the BSN and BSS), the question now has to be whether they should take a different approach to negotiating their television sales in the future. Trying to cling on to the coat tails of the money pouring into the Premier League from Sky Sports clearly isn’t working.
I have said on here before that television is a dying medium, and this is a truth that will, in the fullness of time, come home to roost for the game as a whole. Non-league football has an opportunity to blaze a trail that could end of being a template for the game in general. Many years ago, when football first started to link up with television, many (if not most) people within the game confidently predicted that television would be the ruin on football, but not for the reasons that have come to pass. They predicted that television would have a catastrophic effect on attendances at matches. The truth, however, is that the opposite has happened.
League football went live on the television in 1983, in no small part because clubs were by this time so desperate for money that they had no alternative but to agree to what the television companies requested. Attendances at matches had been plummeting for years prior to that and bottomed out in 1986, but then something that few people were really expecting happened. They shot up. They have risen back to the level that they were at in the early 1960s, which is a remarkable achievement.
Television coverage of football has, however, stood still. Two pundits and a presenter, a commentator and summariser. The one area in which Setanta properly distinguished itself was in its BSP coverage, with interviews with managers during matches and showing the team talks before the match and at half-time (which, in itself, blew the lie that team talks were some sort of confidential meeting that should be hidden from view wide open). Television coverage used to be expensive, but it isn’t any more. A handful of good quality cameras and a little application, and the BSP could… do it for itself.
Internet, the television and football have a chequered history, but there is little doubt that, if people see the coverage, they will go to the matches. The Unibond League had a go at this a couple of years ago, but outsourced the rights to an amateur organisation which made a hash of it and did little more than irritate supporters and clubs alike. If managed properly, however, it could raise the profile of the league inexorably. Television and computer technology is likely to merge further and further over the next decade or so, and the BSP might even steal a march on the bigger boys.
If this seems unlikely, then consider the alternative – selling the rights back to Sky for a pittance and continuing to alienate people as they shunt matches around the schedule. With a near-monopoly on matches being shown, the BSP would be pushed to the back end of the television schedule. More matches on Thursday nights and Sunday evenings would be likely. The Football Conference should look very closely at the amount of money – if any money at all – being offered to them, and should consider very closely whether it might just make sense to go it alone for once.