Something Old, Something New: The Football Media In 2018
The last twelve months have been especially difficult for the news media. Incomes which were already in decline seem to now be falling off a cliff, whilst nobody has truly found a way of successfully converting eyeballs staring at a screen into money at the rates required to comfortably fund this sort of operation. Meanwhile, assault has also come from some of the most powerful men on the planet, who seem to regard destabilising our perception of the media as critical to discrediting those whose opinions differ from their own. It still feels as though the world of mass media is in turmoil at the moment, and that no-one knows exactly where we might end up, if we “end up” anywhere at all.
The football media has not been excused from this. The environment is tough, and social media is having a noxious effect on discourse surrounding the game, even though, at the same time, those who wouldn’t otherwise have had a voice can make themselves heard too. The dominance of Facebook is hurting the potential of one of the few genuine up sides of this brave new world – diversity. At the top sit the social media giants, with the mass media close behind. Underneath this level, though, sits a disparate group of other voices. The written word – particularly in terms of web writing – sometimes feels in retreat. The social media types, in particular YouTubers, may be the group to have best mastered the world of monetisation, but they feel splintered as a grouping. Snark, of course, is perpetually in the air.
For all of this, though, certain old habits in the old media have died harder than others. Certain newspapers’ treatment of Raheem Sterling reached a crescendo this year, before the player himself bit back through social media. And then, something very interesting happened. Those who had been baiting this one particular player – a series of systematic abuse that could only be perceived as racist, at least in part – reacted in a predictably defensive manner, but this time they were not controlling the narrative. The subsequent narrative became their treatment of Sterling and ethnic minority players in a broader sense, and for once the voices of those who’d previously been on the receiving end of racism were those heard most loudly. No-one wanted to hear the hot take of yet another white, middle-class man on the subject.
This felt like a shift. Not a world-changing one, but not insignificant in terms of the insular world of football media, either. The most fundamental aspect of it was the demonstration of the shift in power from the media to players. With an Instagram following far greater than the print circulation of any British national newspaper, Raheem Sterling didn’t need a lascivious hack to get his side of this grim story told. He went straight to his intended audience via a channel that he completely controls. Similarly, the rise of the Players’ Tribune website over the last couple of years has demonstrated players’ willingness to tell their stories through the articulate lens of talented ghost writers. The results have been some of the most spectacular football writing of the year. Wealthy beyond reason and with technology quite literally in their pockets to be able to bypass the circus that comes with any interaction with the mass media, things have changed.
Some would argue that the media’s biggest test of their ability to control football’s narrative will come with the appointment of the next permanent Manchester United manager. The sports pages seemed a little blindsided by the decisions both to sack Jose Mourinho and to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until the end of this season. It had been starting to feel as though Premier League coverage was – at it did three years ago, during the finals months of his second spell at Chelsea – reducing to a Mourinho-shaped singularity.
By the time the dust created by his departure had settled, though, it rather felt as though too much reliance was put on what had happened in the past, to the extent that the “Glazers won’t sack him until Champions League qualification is an impossibility” narrative was being talked about pretty much as established fact, when we now know that it wasn’t. The appointment of Solskjaer as caretaker-manager until the end of this season has also thrown a spanner in the works of the mass media’s automatic new pet narrative – the now apparently inevitable departure of Mauricio Pochettino to Old Trafford at the end of this season.
Press coverage of this story has been relentless, to the point of feeling somewhat disrespectful towards Tottenham Hotspur, the club with whom Pochettino signed a five year contract only last May. Solskjaer has had a reasonably successful start to his time at Old Trafford, and should his stock continue to rise it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t be considered amongst the front-runners to get the job on a full-time basis, come the start of the summer. Both newspapers and television broadcasters have come in for criticism over turning the commentary of recent Spurs matches into little more than speculation over this, and for many Spurs supporters the relish with which they’ve tucked into it has gone some way beyond merely “commenting on what’s already in the news” and getting into the realms of seeking to control their own wish-fulfilment. A successful Manchester United team is, for better or for worse, very much in the media’s best interests, and while those in the line of fire may well respond by criticising those who have complained as hyper-partisans, the obvious retort to that is, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
If the traditional models of controlling the national narrative are slipping away from some parts of the national press, then it might be argued that they haven’t even really gotten to grips with newer ones. Recent stories have hinted that video, a medium into which news corporations have ploughed huge amounts of money and faith in recent years, is unlikely to prove to be a panacea for the industry. And regardless, there aren’t any big media outlets producing football content that is anywhere near the likes of Copa 90 or Tifo Football in terms of quality, or getting anything like the #numbers or #engagement that Spencer FC does.
This existential angst even spread into podcasts, a little, although advertising revenues are currently increasing at a (relatively) vertiginous rate. Within football, this year has largely been one of consolidation for the biggest players, with the biggest addition to the elite level being Baker & Lineker: Behind Closed Doors, a worthy addition, and another which shows how the biggest names can attract huge audiences at the push of a button. Some of the smaller names have either given up or at the point of giving up. Despite this and the fact that podcasting may not end up being the golden goose that some believe it may be, for big media outlets, the podcasting landscape feels probably the healthiest that it has yet, and the number of them only seems likely to continue to grow.
Television, meanwhile, continues to offer up a full spectrum of quality, from the very, very good to the completely abject. At one end of this spectrum sat documentaries about the “Whites vs Blacks” match of 1979 by the BBC, or Sunderland Til I Die, the “in the right place at the right time” Netflix series recently reviewed on this website. At the other, meanwhile, sat Amazon Prime’s puff-piece on Manchester City. The first rule of astroturfing: it can only work if it looks like real grass. This seemed to have been forgotten in the production of All Or Nothing, which was very well-produced but offered the more inquisitive amongst us little of much substance. This is, of course, unsurprising.
Structurally, though, television coverage is in as much of a state of flux as the rest of the mass media. The arrival of Amazon into Premier League TV rights wasn’t as huge a seismic shock as it might have been, more of an exercise in toe-dipping than leaping in at the deep end, as pay-TV had done a quarter of a century earlier. There had long been a degree of scepticism about football tying its entire existence to a medium, television, that otherwise seems to be slowly dying. Amazon’s arrival into the market may be good, it may be bad. All we know for certain is that things are likely to change again in the future.
The Football League has sought to embrace this demographic shift, but its approach has demonstrated that even a shiny, HD, live-streamed future can have unintended consequences. Its iFan facility now allows the streaming of any match that isn’t being played during the 3pm blackout or being shown live by Sky Sports in exchange for (quite a lot of) money. There has been evidence that attendances for matches have fallen, with some clubs complaining that they were not consulted about the decision to press ahead with this and others unhappy at the fact that their cut from streaming sales comes nowhere near covering what they’ve lost from smaller attendances. Elsewhere, meanwhile, one of the “disruptors”, Eleven Sports (who outbid both BT Sports and Sky Sports to secure both Serie A and La Liga liver coverage this season), are already said to be on the brink of closure.
There seems to be no corner of the media that isn’t some form of tumult or other at the moment, and there is no part of it that doesn’t seem to be up for grabs, to some extent or another. That said, though, there has been a degree of calcification going on. The Guardian Football Weekly, The Totally Football series, Baker & Lineker and the other elite podcasts seem likely to continue to dominate the medium, whilst the traditional media’s social media operations continue to dominate the conversation surrounding the game, although their ability to shape it may now be a little damaged. And the same as ever, and as in so many walks of life, the dominant feeling to emerge from 2018 is that the rate of change is now so dizzyingly fast that flux in itself might just be the new normal.