When Setanta Sports went belly up during the summer of 2009, it left the Blue Square Premier in something of a bind. There was talk of this being a repeat of the ITV Digital disaster of 2002, when the collapse of a broadcaster left a large number of Football League clubs in serious trouble having already spent money that they hadn’t yet received. The BSP got off relatively lightly. A donation from the Premier League managed to cut the losses of most of its member clubs last season, and during the summer there has been something of a buzz on the subject of what a new television deal might look like.
Today the answer to this question was made public, and the answer to this question was… not very inspiring. The Blue Square Premier has signed a deal with the broadcaster Premier Sports, which was founded by Michael O’Rourke, a former part-owner of Setanta, in 2009 to broadcast Irish sports that had fallen off the radar of British broadcasters following the collapse of Setanta. The deal is for thirty matches per season to be broadcast per season for the next three years, wth Premier Sports and the Football Conference sharing profits after “a nominal level of subscribers has been achieved”. It will be interesting to find out what number counts as “a nominal level of subscribers” because, unless that number is exceptionally low it is difficult to imagine that anybody is going to make any money at all out of this at all.
There are so many aspects of this television deal that feel wrong that it’s difficult to know where to start. Firstly, the service will only be available to viewers that already have Sky. This fails on several different levels. Firstly, it only reaches around nine million households, limiting the number of people that could subscribe to it if they wanted to. Secondly, the fact that it is on the Sky platform means that they will be broadcasting to subscribers that will largely already paying for Sky Sports, and quite possibly for ESPN as well. The subscription price will be £6.99 per month – will people really pay this much more on top of their existing subscriptions? It seems at best unlikely.
Next, there is the issue of value for money. On the face of it, £6.99 per month seems affordable for a sports channel subscription, but it has been confirmed that only thirty matches per season will be shown live, meaning that a maximum of of only four (or at a push five) matches per month will be shown live on the channel per month. Suddenly, it all starts to sound like much less of a bargain, especially when we consider that, with Blue Square Premier (and lower) football, a large proportion of the people that would be interested enough in a specific match to tune in and watch it live will already be going to the match. Will, say, Newport County supporters pay for live coverage of Darlington vs Mansfield Town? It seems unlikely.
Indeed, in some respects, it feels as if supporters of BSP clubs will be the biggest losers in the whole deal. The full roster of matches for the next couple of months is expected in the next few days, but we already know that the first match will be between Grimsby Town and Luton Town on the 4th of September at 5.15 in the evening. Kicking off two and a quarter hours later will make the logistics of getting home, for Luton supporters, very difficult indeed, but will Luton supporters subscribe to the channel instead? It seems unlikely, if the broadcasters bear the brunt of resentment at the changing of the kick-off time. The net result could be that Grimsby lose out because a large travelling support (and the attendant revenue boost) doesn’t head to Cleethorpes because they can’t get home and Luton lose out for exactly the same reason. It seems likely that there will be plenty more “inventive” changing of kick-off times to follow, as well.
Much of the logic behind this arrangement seems stem from a belief that they can build up a large subscriber base, but even what would seem on the surface like an impossibly large take up of, say, 20,000 people would bring in around £700,000 to the Blue Square Premier per season, which would (if evenly divided) work out at slightly under £30,000 per season per club. And that number seems a high estimate of the potential audience on a regular basis. Perhaps the future of televising the BSP (and other such leagues below it) lies in highlights rather than live matches. The overwhelming majority of people that want to watch live BSP matches will be at those matches. A highlights package, which would bring people up to date each week at a time that was suitable for the very people that would be interested in such a programme, would seem to make sense, but the Football Conference doesn’t seem to have thought in the slightest bit laterally about this.
Last summer, The Football Conference, with pound signs rotating in their eyes, chose not to bother with this when the BBC offered to put up a highlights package for them, yet the publicity that the league would have received from such a deal would have boosted the profile and the credibility of the league inestimably, as well as potentially bringing in more money from sponsorship. As it stands, however, the BSP will be tucked away on a niche channel on a pay-TV platform, and it is difficult to see who will be watching. Most people would have been forgiving of the league if a large amount of guaranteed money had been the reward for messing around with the match schedule and kick-off times and asking people to pay £6.99 per month, but it seems unlikely that this will be the case, and we are left to consider just how good the BBC’s coverage of the Football League has been and how this could have been extended into the Blue Square Premier.