Confirmation of the live televised matches for the Third Round of the FA Cup came early this year, and while there was no great shock in the Manchester derby – a match which has, arguably, taken on a heightened level of importance given the events in the Champions League last night, even if it still isn’t the main even of either teams season – it was a little surprising to see that the decisions were taken by both ITV and ESPN before next weeks Second Round replays had even been played. And there may, whether surprisingly or not, be one or two smaller clubs looking at the matches chosen and wondering how they managed to fail to make the grade.
A total of five matches will be shown live on the television by the two broadcasters over the course of the first full weekend of the new year. ITV will show the matches between Manchester United & Manchester City and Peterborough United & Sunderland on Sunday the 8th January, while ESPN will show the matches between Birmingham City & Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bristol Rovers & Aston Villa on the Saturday, as well as the match between Arsenal & Leeds United on the Monday evening.
It is difficult to envisage the circumstances under which the Manchester derby would not have been selected for live television coverage, even if this is a match that some may feel doesn’t rank as very much more important than the two teams’ meeting in the Community Shield in August. The match between Peterborough United and Sunderland is an interesting choice, for sure. Peterborough’s London Road ground certainly has a hint of that retro feel that broadcasters seem to be looking for when covering the FA Cup, and the match between Bristol Rovers and Aston Villa may turn out to be a tricky one for the Villa manager Alex McLeish, should his team’s form not start to significantly pick up in the three weeks or so beforehand.
The other two matches, however, may cause something of a raising of the eyebrows. The match between Birmingham City & Wolverhampton Wanderers may produce an upset of sort, but, no matter how tepid Birmingham’s return the the Championship may have been this season, Wolves’ form in the Premier League has been no better and it woud be difficult to script a match between these two sides as being in any way a David & Goliath fixture. Finally, the match between Arsenal and Leeds United will be a repeat of a match that was shown live at this stage of the competition and, whilst both are a big draw in their own right, it is difficult to get away from the bottom line, which is that this is a match between a side sitting in fifth place in the Premier League and one sitting in fifth place in the Championship. Leeds pushed Arsenal close in last year’s match – it would be difficult to imagine a repeat of that this time around.
Amongst those clubs that might feel as if they have been a little let down by the choices of the broadcasting companies are Gillingham, whose match against Stoke City sees the Stoke manager Tony Pulis return to Priestfield, where he managed between 1995 and 1999, Chelmsford City and Macclesfield Town, whose replay next week at Moss Rose sees the winners face off against another struggling Premier League club, Bolton Wanderers, and Fleetwood Town, for whom a win in their replay against Yeovil Town would set up a local derby match against Blackpool. Yet the fact that the broadcasters have opted for matches that have the best chance of pulling in the biggest audiences on the coat tails of the Premier League should come as little surprise, since televised FA Cup football is a prime example of – inthe sense of it being a shared experience – a slowly dying medium broadcasting a competition that is starting to feel as if it is in the same state.
All of this comes at a time of flux for the FA and its television rights for international and FA Cup football. There can be little doubt that the prestige – or what there was of it – of the England national team and of the FA Cup has taken some serious knocks in recent years, and this, along with savage cuts forced upon the BBC by the new government have meant a less competitive television rights sales markets. Commercial broadcasters ITV and ESPN have found the market considerably less competitive of late than in recent years and have cashed in accordingly – ITV managed a 25 per cent reduction in their new contract with the FA and the governing body – with Wembley still not paid for and its products on the wane – can hardly be described as being in a strong negotiating position.
If this makes it sound ITV is in a strong position, then this could also be misleading. If the future of television lays somewhere between on demand services and pay tv, then ITV continues to be something of a reluctance of the past. It has no serious challengers for free to air broadcasting rights – the BBC remains enfeeble, Channel Four has shown precious little interest in covering the game since the Football Italia days of the 1990s, and Channel Five’s pockets don’t seem deep enough to launch a serious challenge for television rights that any other broadcaster would want to fight over – so we can probably expect it to continue to profit and irritate in equal measures with its Champions League, FA Cup and international coverage for the time being, at least.
And herein lies the crux of the FA’s problem. Its signature dishes – England international matches and the FA Cup – are both in state of decline and it is dependent on a market – television – which is in decline up to a point, while the lion’s share of the revenue that is still being thrown at the sport is now being thrown at the Premier League and the Champions League, and all of this comes in ten years that has seen the governing body spend a frankly mind-boggling amount of money on a new stadium. This has already led to a cut in FA Cup prize money which has arguably already affected lower division clubs, and perhaps now the time is right to break with outmoded, traditionalist ideas to breathe new life into the world’s oldest cup competition for the twenty-first century. The alternative is the continuing decline of the competition, and that would be an ongoing tragedy for English football as we understand it.
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