The loss of Setanta Sports during the summer didn’t only have knock on effects for the Premier League, although that was the story which hogged the headlines at the time. The Scottish Premier League had to negotiate a new (and reduced) deal with Sky Sports, the Blue Square Premier started the new seasons without any television coverage at all and the FA were left seeking new partners for the FA Cup. The draw for the FA Cup First Round was made on Sunday lunchtime, and the question started to be asked again of who would be sharing the television rights for the competition with ITV.
The answer to that question is now public, and it is that – for now, at least – no-one will share the television rights for the FA Cup with ITV. Two live matches from the First Round of the competition (Paulton Rovers vs Norwich City and Northwich Victoria vs Charlton Athletic) will be shown live on ITV1, whilst a third (Oldham Athletic vs Leeds United) will be streamed live on the FA’s website. For the replays, ITV4 will show show one match live whilst the FA’s website will show a second match. The question is, however, one of why the FA has been unable to secure a television deal for the world’s oldest football competition.
The answer seems be three-fold. Firstly, this is a very depressed market in the media. The other commercial “Free To Air” channels don’t seem to have shown any interest in broadcasting the competition. Advertising revenues are currently in the doldrums, and commercial broadcasters have very little spare cash at this time of the year, having spent such of their programming budgets elsewhere. Secondly, when the FA moved the competition to Setanta and ITV it is rumoured that the BBC and Sky both had their noses put out of joint, leaving neither broadcaster particularly inclined to do anything other than play hardball with the FA over the FA Cup. Thirdly, it has also been said that the FA were a little too dependent upon ESPN stepping in to buy the rights to the FA Cup when the truth of the matter is that Paulton Rovers vs Norwich City, for all of its charms, doesn’t exactly fit their profile.
What seem to be seeing here is the final stages of a total reversal in the roles of television companies and the football authorities. or decades, broadcasters wanted to show matches on the television but the game’s authorities, mindful of the potential effect on attendances on matches, were reluctant to allow the cameras in on anything like a permanent basis. During the early 1980s, however, this viewpoint started to change through necessity and television was demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on the game. Far from affecting attendances, television coverage seems to have had the opposite effect. It seems as though people are more likely to go to live matches if they see them on the television.
By the early 1990s, the game was being used as a loss leader for the then-ailing Sky Sports and the amount of money being thrown at the game has risen stratospherically. The game, in turn, has become dependent on the money that television brings into the game. The FA, with a large staff and the onerous costs of the construction of Wembley Stadium hanging over its head, might be more dependent than most on this contsant source of income. To an extent, it could be argued that they have been lucky in securing so much money for such a long time, but the worry is that they have become too used to this money. We’ll probably never know what was said during their negotiations with Sky, ESPN and the BBC, but it seems at least possible that the FA held out for money than they would get in the current environment.
It seems unlikely that the FA received absolutely no interest in the early rounds of the FA Cup from any broadcasters. More likely is a scenario in which they have decided not to allow the price to be driven down by desperation. It’s a high risk strategy and we will not know whether it has worked until after the First Round has been played at the absolute earliest. It remains possible that a broadcaster will step in at a later stage in the competition – the Third Round, for example, when Premier League and Championship clubs join the competition – but the lingering suspicion that FA will live to regret its decision to move the competition away from the BBC and Sky Sports remains.