With the Premier League title sewn up last season before there was snow on the ground and doomed QPR sucking all relegation fodder towards them like an expensive black hole for most of the season, there was a conspicuous dearth of competition at the top and bottom to get the pulse racing in last season’s league.
The self-anointed ‘best league in the world’ struggled to bear witness to that tag on any other front than allowing its members to break records on gut-splitting wage bills and in closing deals on broadcasting contracts that could annihilate the national debts of most Third World countries. Football as a spectator business, it’s been clear for a while, is on fire and the race to placate the Premier League public in the United Kingdom into lactating its rich rewards into the waiting bucket of the media circuit has been dominated by Sky for as long as anyone can remember. The fear now as the details of BT’s challenge become clear is that the competition, though hotly anticipated, may mirror Manchester City’s recent title defense – expensively assembled and intimidating on paper but conspicuously ill-equipped to contend with twenty years of dominance by the established order.
With both broadcaster’s announcing their early season picks last week, Sky have struck the first blow against the new pretenders and the breakdown looks bleak for BT. The newcomers will be pleased to have secured the first Merseyside Derby of the Martinez era and Jose Mourinho’s renewal of relations with Spurs will draw big numbers but beyond that the schedule looks likely to attract only a fan-ship core. With only a fraction of the live programming of their rivals, it was always going to be vital for BT to make those hours count, especially in what is likely to be a nervous opening few months. Now there’s a risk that the big investment, smaller than Sky’s, may yield disproportionately small returns. That’s because one quarter of the match share doesn’t in this case equate to a quarter of the punch in market terms, since the showcase games draw disproportionately large takings. Premier League matches reached 643million homes last season but the numbers tuning in for games involving Manchester United typically dwarf the respective figures for Wigan, Reading and a further handful of also-rans, and with a stellar line-up of the biggest games, Sky can expect to cream off not only more games but vastly bloated audience returns.
All this of course means that the scale may not be tipping as seismically as BT’s recent advertising onslaught would like us to believe, and questions present themselves over exactly how far the BT Vision project expects it might be able to grow. With the majority of Premier League viewers watching from home rather than the terraces, these are important questions for the future of football consumption. If the competition for broadcasting rights is set to become truly competitive then we as a TV audience can expect to experience a number of positive changes.
On the one hand, levels of service will likely rise, most conspicuously in regards to consumer costs. As the only player in its field, Sky have traditionally enjoyed the comfort of being able to quite literally name their price, knowing that no other football product on the market was ever likely to draw away dissatisfied customers in number. Suddenly there is cause to check the rear mirror, however distantly the BT challenge may be following, and any object to distract from the tedious monopoly that domestic football coverage has become has to be cause for optimism. Before a ball has been kicked, the early season program has already found room for a first ever free-to-air live game from the top flight as Sky respond to a mass saturation of advertising space by their new rival. No noises are being made as yet that a trend is brewing, but free-view audiences will wake up on August 17 feeling more enfranchised that at any other point over the last two decades.
There’s also the quality of a product that can no longer afford to stagnate in its production values. The insatiable demand for the Premier League has meant that for twenty years viewers have tolerated the trite and facile verbal volleyball that passes for comment and analysis at Sky with little outlet for meaningful protest, leaving a generation of production teams restful in the absence of any sustained pressure to improve standards. Not that the early signs from BT are cause for renewed optimism that a new breed of pundit is about to take to our screens – the announcement of Rio Ferdinand as ‘football expert and programme maker’ will have sent faces crashing into palms throughout the sane world and anchor Jake Humphries was schooled at the knee of some of the BBC’s most prized and culpable radishes. But from August there will be what there has rarely previously been – another channel to turn to, and nothing is so good for innovation as the fear that defenses are vulnerable to being breached.
So reasons to be cheerful for the watching masses certainly, but none so compelling as to quell the nagging feeling that we could be about witness a false dawn. Another player in the arena doesn’t always mean increased competition, especially if the gulf in fire power is millions of pounds wide – how successful were Wigan in toppling Manchester United from their perch in all their eight years in the Premier League? If BT’s Vision is truly to build an object capable of standing up to the irresistible force of Sky a drastic levelling of the field is still necessary, which may yet require further regulation from broadcasting watchdogs and the state. Only once has a major change in the distribution of the rights to air cause a major revolution in the way football is produced and consumed and the ripples from that shockwave are still forming and reforming new landscapes, twenty years after the FA sold its ownership of the game to Rupert Murdoch and friends. Only once the tremors have subsided and the damage can be assessed can we be truly optimistic about sustainable change taking root.