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.