Category Archives: Football

The realities behind the €7bn TV deal

Within minutes of the Premier League’s new TV deal being revealed earlier this month, the football world had calculators out crunching the numbers.

The figures are staggering. The battle between Sky Sports and BT Sport saw the domestic rights for England’s top league tip just under €7 billion for the lifetime of the three-year agreement – and that’s before overseas or any highlights packages were added in.

Those involved in Scottish football, with many of its clubs experiencing significant turmoil at present, were left to dwell on the fact that the new deal surpasses their own monetary income from TV rights in just two games.

League Two side Accrington Stanley, meanwhile, pointed out that the sum to be paid for just one fixture under the new terms (circa £10 million per match) would pay their annual wage bill for the next 20 years.

For League of Ireland fans, the discussion centred, once again, on the lack of TV money within Irish domestic football – at least in the form of an agreement that would see money going directly to clubs in addition to prize money – and the impact of this on the League’s development cannot be underestimated given that Uefa’s own benchmarking report says that income from domestic TV rights typically averages 25% of total revenue for clubs across Europe (43% in England, according to the most recent figures released).

Further backing up the Premier League’s dominance, at least in terms of finance, is the fact that all 20 EPL clubs are part of football’s Top 40 rich list – and the new deal means that whichever club is unfortunate enough to finish bottom of the table at the end of the 2016-17 season will at least have £99 million in their back pocket to help with life back in the Championship.

Of course, the reason for the intense competition and the huge figures we’re seeing is the Premier League’s popularity on a globe scale. Nations all over the world want to see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City in action, while the concerns of those trying to actively support their local teams fade into the background like white noise.

A VisitBritain survey conducted in 2011 found that 174,000 Irish people travelled to Britain to watch football that year, spending €100 million in the process. Such ‘football tourists’ are big business as not only do they buy a premium-price match ticket, they also visit the club shop, perhaps take a tour of the stadium and then invest in merchandise year after year. I once paid £42 for a ticket to see Leeds United play in the Championship.

Irish supporters flying across the Irish Sea fork out for Premier League tickets on a handful of times a season but what about your local man, woman or youngster who needs to try and find the cash for a season ticket (Arsenal’s cheapest season ticket is now £1,014), and then face into an ever-changing fixture list on account of TV kick offs?

There are now real concerns that younger people in England are being priced out of the game and that the stadium atmospheres, considered such an integral part of the spectacle, are dying out as a direct consequence.

The Football Supporters’ Federation and Supporters Direct, representing a number of Premier League supporters’ trust, are backing initiatives to cap away ticket prices at £20 (‘Twenty’s plenty’), and there have also been calls for England’s top tier to implement the Living Wage, given their healthy bank balances.

Unfortunately, the response hasn’t been encouraging to date with PL chief Richard Scudamore saying that football isn’t responsible for increasing the minimum level of workers’ income. He also insists clubs need to continue to reinvest in talent and infrastructure in order for the Premier League to maintain its envied status.

The organisation currently redistributes about 6% of its income – 3% towards community programmes and facilities, and another 3% to the Football League and Conference in the form of ‘solidarity’ payments. Grassroots football, meanwhile, in many parts of Britain is on its knees.

I worked with Setanta Sports before they ever showed a Premier League game in the UK or Ireland, and experienced the huge upsurge the company felt when it did eventually dip its toes in the water and challenge Sky Sports (2006).

It was a fantastically exciting time – to have first-hand access to some of the biggest names in football – but there was to be no happy ending. Having failed to retain both their domestic packages in the UK next time around, the UK business eventually ceased trading in the summer of 2009 affecting Irish operations in the process.

Don’t fear: Scudamore and co. were not left out of pocket, and it was ESPN that came on board initially, taking many out-of-work Setanta staff with them. They too would flounder, unable to match the deep resources of Sky, but that context makes the arrival of BT Sport – and other possible bidders – ever more intriguing.

Football fans watching from these shores have also felt the cost of these deals. Two separate TV subscriptions, or many trips to the pub, are now needed to watch all live PL broadcasts on Sky Sports, BT Sport and Setanta Ireland – in an era where the average football fan has little or nothing in common with the likes of Wayne Rooney or Yaya Toure apart from the replica shirt he or she wears.

The new Premier League TV rights deal will see a 70% increase in income on its predecessor and yet supporters are today paying about 1000% more for match tickets than they did in 1992. There have also been significant increases in the cost of TV package subscriptions, and then we have the furore over the winter calendar for the 2020 World Cup. Thankfully, there’s also the success of FC United’s community shares scheme to celebrate…

The question remains: can a balance be struck between the financial powerhouse that is the Premier League and the needs of the game of football at every level across England? And, if so, who’s going to lead the drive for change? The FA? Clubs? Supporters?

 

 

 

Advertisements

The romance of the FA Cup is not only dead, it’s long gone.

AFC Wimbledon and a small club from the seven tier of English football apart, there was little intrigue in many of the third round FA Cup matches. ‘Giantkiller’ headlines are long gone from the competition, as the Premier League’s continued evolution moves its clubs beyond the reach of even those just trailing behind.

Photograph: Wembley, Author’s Own

Sure, there is still the odd minor upset from time to time – but the finances of today’s game in the United Kingdom mean many of the top tier clubs can play a mixture of regulars, youths and those in need of getting 90 minutes under their belt, and still record a relatively easy win over whatever lower division side throws at them.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of passion, excitement and entertainment on display. Dover Athletic’s fixture against Crystal Palace afforded us the opportunity to reflect on just how far the London side has come recently. They won their match comfortably in the end – the hosts’ tired legs succumbing just enough to make the vital difference after a huge effort in the opening half. The fixture might not have been settled definitely until the hour mark; the result, however, never seemed in doubt.

We then switched our attentions to Manchester City, who hilariously fell behind at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The latter are a decent side and were always going to be tricky opponents that needed to be felled with care and precision. However, City piled forward in waves after going behind and once James Milner equalised, there was an immediate fear that a winner would duly follow.

Wednesday ran themselves ragged holding on and could genuinely feel hard done by when Milner’s second hit the back of the net in added time but there was such a feeling of inevitability about it that the commentary team on the day barely acknowledged their ‘brave’ efforts before sending them packing back to the Championship. City, in contrast, were ‘relieved’ to be through to the next round and simply glad of no significant headline coming from the Etihad Stadium.

On then to neighbours United, who made the trip to Yeovil. The tie – the viewers were reminded on numerous occasions – meant a huge deal financially to the home side, who had even commissioned a once-off jersey to commemorate the occasion. Social Media did question this specific idea; however, as anyone involved with a League of Ireland club knows, you have to make hay while the sun shines and, at least in terms of football, that’s a big Premier League team coming to town.

Yeovil’s efforts on the pitch were incredible. They made United look distinctly average in the first half – and it was this encounter, more than any other over the five days, that stood out as an example of what the FA Cup third round really means for football’s minnows today.

To beat a team well ahead of your league ranking, you need to have the perfect day and hope your opponents are not only off form and missing a few of their big talents, but that they’re also thrown further off course by playing against unknown faces, sometimes at a new ground and surrounded by a wall of hostile banter.

Manager and players alike have to get their tactics and approach absolutely spot on. In a game where the smallest of mistakes can result in disaster, the lower division sides just don’t have the physical fitness, skills and players to mix it with the biggest of the Premier League sides any longer. They cannot rely on boggy pitches to slow their opponents down or engage in an arm wrestle to ensure victory. TV money has not only moved football’s biggest names in another realm, it has also moved Premier League clubs into another stratosphere of competition.

The saving grace was, of course, the respective performances of Blyth Spartans, who were 2-0 up against Birmingham City before losing 3-2, and that of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon.

For the latter, despite being defeated by the one and only Steven Gerrard, Monday night’s game showed what being in the 3rd round of the competition still does provide smaller outfits: huge spotlight, the opportunity to showcase your football club to your own local population that are drawn in by a big name draw, as well as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what you stand for – benefits that are not too dissimilar from a League of Ireland club competing in Europe…

In the Dons’ case, the club backed the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and refused to move the fixture from their home ground though it could have meant a bigger financial windfall. To put the latter into context, one of Rochdale’s backroom staff described the TV income from their third round game (circa. £25,000) as being ‘huge money’ for his club.

On the night itself we were treated to anecdotes about the AFC Wimbledon players. ‘Great run from Sean Riggs, who wants to be a tattoo artist I believe’, while Adam Barrett was the man that missed the third round draw because he was wrapping Christmas presents. This is a football club, remember, whose founding trust was told starting again and forming AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”.

Yes, commentators, pundits and supporters alike all profess a love for the ‘beauty’ and fairytale stories of the FA Cup year in year out. Yet weakened line ups and its timing directly after the intensely busy Christmas fixture list suggest that the big players are just happy we can settle down to the real business of vying for silverware now that the heart-warming and ‘back-to-grassroots-football’ third round ties are out of the way.

Seattle: A sound football lesson

“The love of soccer is now a universal language.”

So said then US President Bill Clinton at the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup. Hosting the tournament around some of the greatest cities in the USA, we were told, was vital to the development of the game in North America. A chance for Americans to appreciate all the great things we already knew about football, we added.

My parents had a visitor from New York staying with us when Brazil took on the host country in the second round. He, bless, didn’t understand how a country with a lower GNP than his own could be better in one particular sport. The comment reinforced a stereotype already being implanted in us all, everywhere we looked.

Sounders_Baseball
CenturyLink Field, home of Seattle Sounders, with Safeco Field in the background.

The MLS has continued to appear in our media every now and then. Players no longer at the very top of their game in the Premier League have sought moves across the Atlantic, including our own Robbie Keane. Many (not all, no doubt!) admired the publication of the league’s salary list; others suggested franchises might be a way forward for domestic football in Ireland.

Earlier this year I had the chance to travel to Seattle with work. On my first day strolling along the waterfront, having visited the world famous Pike Place Market, I spotted the outline of a stadium on the horizon. I couldn’t resist a peak. It turned out to be CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Sounders and Seattle Seahawks, and it just happens to be right alongside the city’s baseball ground (Safeco Field) in what’s akin to an ultra sports campus.

The Club Shop was open, the merchandise was top class (Adidas – jealous!), and the staff were happy to fill me in on the background. The Sounders and Seahawks have been co-operating for years (though they became independent of each other earlier this summer), and work together to promote both brands.

Merch_Ladies
Sounders merchandise

Having already given the world grunge (or ‘Seattle sound’!) as well as Starbucks, football has found a real home in the state of Washington. The club has 32,000 season ticket holders, while 64,207 fans attended the derby fixture against Portland Timbers back in July.

The Sounders are actively involved in their local community, with the underage game in the area and, interestingly, have something called the Sounders FC Alliance despite being in private ownership. The Alliance allows supporters play a more active role in their football club than is typical – and Sounders themselves believe this has been critical to their development.

For a more in-depth insight, check out this excellent feature piece by Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2013-10-15/sounders-c-suite-with-jeffrey-hayzlett-10-15

Luckily, Sounders had a home fixture against Philadelphia Union while I was in town. The famed ‘March to the Match’ is great to see (fans march from the centre of town to the game singing and chanting in colours).

CenturyLinkField_pan_v2

The club’s brass band welcome everyone. After going through security (think airport scanners), club reps are available to direct you to wherever your seat is. You can drink beer within sight of the pitch, red carpet greets the teams, the national anthem is played and you’re given streamers to throw at the pitch. The on-screen graphics and stadium announcers are football on steroids compared to what we’re used to.

Sounders_RedCarpet
Red carpet treatment

When the Sounders score, flames of fire shoot from the top of the goal posts. The announcer will call the scorer’s first name, and the crowd will respond with his surname. Cheese, yes, but it really is enjoyable and the enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

Looking around, the stands were full of families, couples, groups of friends, women, children, older folk – all the age categories we would love to see at League of Ireland games. There was a genuine sense of collective, in-this-together and everyone was very welcoming to new faces. Awesome may be an overused word, but the experience – genuinely – was awesome and it’s clear that the people of Seattle are very proud of their football club.

The Sounders won 2-1 on the night. Outside back (full back) DeAndre Yedlin is currently being linked with a move to Tottenham, while names like Djimi Traore, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey will be familiar to fans that watch the Premier League. The latter is their star man and, generally, a cut above the rest of terms of talent. There is no shortage of determination and passion though, as exhibited by the entire US squad during the World Cup that followed.

So the question has to be asked? What can we learn from this club in particular but also the MLS as a league. RTÉ pundits were disrespectful of the US team throughout the tournament, often expressing the view that because MLS players were involved, the the US line up was weaker than other sides. The view has echos of how many pundits view our domestic league – judging from a distance without being familiar with the details.

CenturyLink_Field2
Another view of CenturyLink Field

The finances of the League of Ireland itself and clubs that participate in it are consistently the subject of guessing games. If we had a true and accurate picture of all involved year in year out, we could then measure improvement (or otherwise) in a meaningful way. The FAI led the way in introducing the 65% Salary Cost Protocol for the League; imagine if clubs had to publish their total wage bill or individual players’ salaries?

The Sounders are unique in terms of fan engagement, but having heard Tim Connolly of the Green Bay Packers speak at the 2013 Supporters Direct conference at St. George’s Park, it’s also clear we need to stop turning our nose up at what our American friends are doing and start to take on board what works because something is stirring and, like everything in life, we can learn from it…

CenturyLink_Field
CenturyLink Field