“If it looks like a duck”, it is said, “swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”. Except in this case, it was a turkey and, boy, did it gobble. The Premier Sports television deal with the Blue Square Premier carried an air of absurdity about it from the very start. Not only was the league prostrating itself at the altar of mammon, moving kick-off times left, right and centre (and frequently at very short notice), but the contract signed didn’t guarantee the all of the clubs of the league any money unless “a nominal level of subscribers has been achieved”. To the surprise of nobody – with the possible exception of those that signed the deal in the first place – that “nominal level” has not been reached, meaning that revenue sharing will not be happening for the smaller clubs in the league.
It has been noted on this site before that television is, almost so incrementally as to be unnoticable, a dying medium. In addition to this, when coupled with the reduced income to be received by the Football League for next season, the notion that lower division football can make anything like a living from television rights has been taking something of a battering of late. Perhaps it is time for those that run the Blue Square Premier to take the hint and reconsider whether they should be bothering to chase the dragon of money from television contracts, because the grim truth of the matter is that it doesn’t really seem as if very many people want to watch them – at least, certainly not enough to make the idea anything like commercially viable.
We noted the potential pitfalls of this deal when it was first announced last year. Viewers could only subscribe to it if they had Sky Television access, which automatically dramatically cut the channel’s potential audience. In addition to this, live matches – and, as a result, amended kick-off times – were often announced late, which caused resentment amongst a considerable proportion of the supporters of the clubs in the league itself, which, it could certainly be argued, was an object lesson in how not to deal with the very people that, presumably, Premier Sports wished to ingratiate themselves with. After all, if the regular watchers of Blue Square Premier football couldn’t be relied upon to purchase themselves a subscription, who exactly would?
Perhaps the problem that the league has is that the quality of football in the Blue Square Premer palls in comparison with what is on offer on the television elsewhere. Tuesday night provided us with a good example of this. On Sky Sports, viewers could choose between two Champions League quarter-finals, between Chelsea & Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk & Barcelona. On Premier Sports, meanwhile, the option was Crawley Town vs Luton Town. Perhaps the effect of this was best seen in an attendance of 3,326, only two-thirds of the capacity of Broadfield Stadium. Was the attendance at the ground, although considerably higher than Crawley’s average this season, affected by being scheduled against a match between Chelsea and Manchester United? Well, to quantify the extent to which it was is difficult, but it’s difficult to argue that it wasn’t.
It isn’t that lower division football isn’t a very enjoyable experience. There are tens of thousands of people that will testify that it is. Under the harsh focus of television cameras, however, mistakes become more glaring and the difference in quality becomes more obvious. We argued last year that the way forward for non-league football – if it has to pay any attention to television in the first place – would have been a highlights package which might have showcased the best of what the league had to offer, as opposed to what has been tried and has failed – an attempt to market a lower league as somehow shiny alternative to the very best. Chasing the quick buck is all very well if it works, but if it fails – as this deal was always likely to – then the clubs themselves are left empty-handed and the supporters of those clubs are left angry at having been so inconvenienced for some crumbs from the altar of mammon. A little lateral thinking may have gone a long way.
The recent history of the game is pock-marked with the remains of media companies that tried and failed. ITV Digital and Setanta were the two highest-profile failures, but there have been others and the press release issued by Premier Sports seemed to hint that the company itself is running out of patience with this contract already. The televising of live football is an expensive business for a television company from a logistical point of view (which is probably the biggest single reason behind why Premier Sports’ “nominal level subscribers” was never likely to be reached). It’s all very well wondering what might happen regarding money going to the clubs, but if the television company itself is making a loss on each match, it is surely only a matter of time before the deal is quietly wound up.
If highlights would be a better way of covering non-league football, then perhaps the way forward would be for the Blue Square Premier (or, indeed, any non-league competition) to invest in a couple of half-decent cameras and put the highlights up themselves. Whether they would be able to make money from it is open to question, but the proliferation of club channels on YouTube would seem to indicate that the interest is there. Indeed, making matches available on the internet is still one area in which the Premier League lacks sophistication (matches are only legally available to stream for Sky subscribers). There is an opportunity there, if only someone can try a different approach and work to the principle that building a non-league community online could reap dividends that the ill-conceived pursuit of cash never will. The Football Conference got its fingers burnt by the collapse of Setanta Sports and it didn’t learn. Perhaps they will get the message if Premier Sports pulls the plug.
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