AN UNDYING THIRST

Television and the media shape our view of football - so what of the demand for the sport and the impact of this? Here’s Alistair Hendrie, putting the questions to a man who should know - Clive Tyldesley.

Rupert Murdoch, an associate of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) once declared: “There are three main sports in Britain, and they are football, football, football.” He has a point. During most weekends in the main meat of the football season, there is an average of 15 live matches shown across terrestrial television, Eurosport, Sky Sports, and their most recent competitors in Britain, ESPN. That’s a wealth of magnificent football from numerous leagues in England, Spain, Germany and plenty more.

On these shores in particular, football’s general stock has spiked upwards since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. Clive Tyldesley, ITV’s main football commentator since 1998, can attest to this. “There’s been an explosion in the awareness of football – there are definitely more televised games. The Premier League has helped the exposure of football in both Britain and abroad.”

This, along with the influential guidance of Sky Sports, has laid the foundations for a country immersed in football. The May 1992 deal between Sky Sports and the Premier League was worth an astonishing £304m, and the celluloid pleasures of television are just as important today. West Ham, unceremoniously relegated from the Premier League a week before its climax, are guaranteed at least £37m from television revenue. At the other end of financial scale Manchester United will look to rake in around £57 million after their crowning as champions.

For this cashflow to continue rolling smoothly, put simply, people have to want to pay for and watch football. Thankfully, the British general public can’t get enough of it. Tyldesley says: “For every one season ticket holder, there is probably 10 other knowledgeable, enthusiastic fans of any club. Sometimes a rally of 1,000 people will appear as the first story on the national news. But every single day in this country 30,000, 40,000, or in Manchester United’s case, 70,000 people all attend football matches. When there’s a big England match on, this may even be the first story featured in the news.”

With ITV’s coverage spearheaded by FA Cup and Champions League coverage, Sky Sports’ main promise is its unrivalled and comprehensive Premier League coverage, which boasts 115 live matches each season. Terrestrial TV is still relevant to the British public though. ITV frequently favours a David versus Goliath tie in the FA Cup over matches with bigger clubs, something Sky Sports cannot claim to do without FA Cup coverage. Tyldesley gushes over viewing figures and confirms: “Manchester United against Crawley got 9 million viewers on ITV, but a match featuring two big clubs in Arsenal and Barcelona got 8.8 million.”

According to Tyldesley, the excessive Champions League coverage in Britain is shifting priorities amongst both fans and clubs alike. “These days, teams like Inter Milan and Barcelona are rivals of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United who are chasing silverware, as opposed to more local rivals and domestic rivals.” An average of 3.7m watched ITV’s broadcast of Spurs’ Champions League defeat to Inter Milan in October 2010.

The sheer volume of exposure to football these days breeds a sense of familiarity with overseas clubs. Channel Four’s legendary Serie A highlights show from the early nineties, Football Italia, ushered in a watershed for coverage of foreign football and European competitions in this country. The public are nowadays not exclusively interested in just English football and are a more knowledgeable entity. “Fans know about these clubs from abroad now because of coverage of the Champions League. They can also familiarise themselves with these names through games like FIFA”, said Tyldesley.

This swelling knowledge of football from all corners of the globe does much to underline the demand for football here. Sky Sports’ strategy is shrewd and they understand the public are willing to pay for football, football and more football. Tyldesley identifies with their strategy and said: “They know the people buying Sky are those who are obsessed with football – it’s their main selling point.”

Football sells, and Sky Sports have used this to their advantage. With over 10 million subscribers in Britain, Sky Sports clearly has a firm grip on the monopoly of sports broadcasters. Tyldesley, despite representing rivals in ITV, freely attests to the glowing successes of his employer’s competitors. “Sky Sports are very clever in their marketing. I wouldn’t call it brainwashing, but some of their adverts are really funny. They will have a list of big matches and in the middle somewhere they’ll have your Schalke versus Austria Vienna. I’ll think: ‘who is going to watch that?’ But because it’s billed a big week in football, you feel like you have to watch it. They’re very good at that.”

It is as if Sky Sports has become inherently ingrained into British society – like we don’t know anything else. “Their advertising makes you think that it’s the only place you can see it. I remember texting a mate about the Masters golf, he was baffled when I said I was watching on the BBC, he thought it was just on Sky. Before the Rugby World Cup in 2005, two of my mates – these were well educated adults – came up to me beaming because they’d bought Sky Sports so they could watch the rugby. They merely assumed it was on Sky Sports but it was all on ITV. Sky Sports have beaten their rivals and fair play to them.”

That’s exactly what comes of success – rivals. Over the last 15 years or so, many channels have stepped up to the plate and at the time bragged and shouted about their diverse approach to sports broadcasting. ESPN is the latest conglomerate to attempt to shift the paradigm of channels. In June 2009, the Disney-bankrolled US giant purchased the rights to show live Premier League football.

Of course, the resurgence of ESPN in this country came at the expense of an aspirational yet doomed antidote to Sky Sports. It was the matches that Irish broadcasters Setanta Sports previously owned that ESPN won the rights for. Setanta Sports were plunged into administration in June 2009, with myriad payments being awaited. A company which was struggling to its feet with losses of £100m a year would always be treacherous. They put their faith in differentials such as Indian Premier League cricket, Blue Square Premier football and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) but were always headed for murky waters. Indeed, they would never have broken even with just 1.3m customers. Experts predicted they could need around 1.9m to prosper.

Tyldesley paints a cold, unforgiving picture when discussing the loss of Setanta Sports. “It’s like any business these days. You get to a point where the customer asks: ‘Why do I need to pay for a second broadcaster when I have Sky Sports?’

ITV’s stalwart does know all about competing with Sky Sports, after all. The pitfalls over going at loggerheads with Sky Sports were unveiled in dramatic circumstances after the collapse of ITV Digital in May 2002. The regretful Tyldesley admits: “We made some mistakes. It was a bleak time for ITV and it made people very suspicious of sports broadcasting.”

The basic fundamentals of ITV Digital were all at sea. Customers complained of fuzzy pictures and poor customer service. “When you have a product, it has to work properly. When it doesn’t work, you need to get someone out to help. This is where we went wrong.”

Earmarking a differential to Sky Sports with the aggressive plugging of its Football League coverage, ITV Digital had three sports channels. However, Murdoch’s Sky Sports yet again controlled the legion of sports broadcasters. By the time ITV Digital went into administration, it had just over a million subscribers, that figure dwarfed with Sky Sports’ domineering 5.5m subscribers.

Not only were the customers staying away, ITV Digital’s problems were becoming a mountain due to the financial implications of limping home in second place. Putting £300m into the rights for the Nationwide Football League was a huge gamble. By the end of their four miserable years as a broadcaster, debts of £178.5m were owed to irate Football League clubs.

Then came the fallout. Clubs such as Swansea City and Bradford City teetered on the brink of liquidation after failed promises from ITV Digital. Fans and clubs raged as a media storm imploded. Tyldesley looks back: “I think we could have ridden the storm out – people were saying a dozen clubs could go out of business, but in the end, none of them did.”

The crumbling of ITV Digital and Setanta Sports is another example of Sky Sports standing smugly above the competition, blowing them out of the water at every opportunity. But with a country so reliant on Sky for its daily football thirst, what does the future hold for other forms of media, such as print and the Internet?

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for newspapers to survive. I used to get two every day but not anymore”, says Tyldesley. “The Internet is far more important for football, I check it every day.” Today, the football blogosphere is expanding with newspapers such as The Guardian featuring blogs on their websites and employing these bloggers.

With the print media currently lagging behind, Sky Sports is even more all encompassing for our daily football fix. Founded 20 years ago, it is difficult to imagine the Premier League without Sky Sports. The deal between the two happened just a year after Sky Sports’ birth, so events could have been a lot different without the new brand of lucrative, globally marketed football. One might wonder what audacious stunts Sky Sports might pull in the next 20 years to keep the public on an eagerly received football-shaped drip.  

Alistair is a regular contributor to IBWM. You can follow him on Twitter here 

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