Football & the Fourth Estate

The difference between success and failure is sometimes the narrowest of margins. I wonder if the Executives at ESPN are scratching their heads this week after losing out completely in the latest Premier League TV rights auctions.

The network is the same company, of course, that benefitted from Setanta UK’s demise in 2009 and few would have expected them to be totally eliminated from the marketplace this time around.

The figures and facts from this latest auction are startling. Over £3bn for the live TV rights for 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16 – over £1bn more in cash for the Premier League this time round. Sporting Intelligence put together an excellent summary of the situation in their ‘This bubble ain’t bursting yet…’ feature and television’s impact on football is nowhere more apparent than a comparison between the average wage earned by a footballer in 1992 (£117,000 a year) when Sky Sports first arrived on the scene and 2012 (£2m+ a year), a mere 20 years later.

I was lucky enough to study at Cardiff University during my degree (Journalism, DCU) and one of our modules, entitled ‘Sport, Media and Globalisation’, tackled the issue of sport and how a range of elements – including television – had impacted and influenced its development over the decades.

Football was an obvious area for discussion and it was interesting to bring the League of Ireland’s experience into the discussion, given how extensive television, radio and media coverage has become such an integral part of the game in the UK.

Many of the books and articles I have read about Irish football pinpoints the arrival of television to Ireland and specifically Match of the Day – which gave Irish viewers a chance to be enthralled by a more polished product across the water – as the beginning of the decline for the domestic league here.

As the heroes of Manchester United and Liverpool were beamed directly into homes across Ireland, the lads playing down the once-packed local grounds faded into the ordinary – and the game here never recovered the lost ground.

As a product, the Premier League would appear to be motoring along nicely. Plenty of networks compete to broadcast either live games or highlight packages, sponsors queue to be involved with clubs and it would appear to be an easy ‘sell’ overseas in terms of the global football market.

Examine the league a little closer and it’s a battle of financial resources between the top teams – the bigger the backer, the better a club’s chances of success – but in a time when the Premier League authorities are falling over themselves to announce their latest £3bn coup, there is little chance of football moving away from the money game any time soon.

TV has changed how we watch, follow and even interact with sport. The problem is that a growing list of drawbacks is now threatening to cast a shadow over the many positives that coverage brings us as sports fans. Television has brought money into the game and even given it an envied stature within the global sporting world.

However, it has also built an expectation around how the game is ‘packaged’ and leagues without that coverage undoubtedly suffer. Like everything in life, the right balance is crucial. Football needs to put the correct emphasis on integrity, its community role and fair play as well as the drive to be a commercial success. Football isn’t the Beautiful Game without the first three elements but it also won’t survive with the fourth…



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