Every season around this time, you can guarantee that some of the British journalists and members of The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast will lament how the FA Cup is becoming increasingly boring and what needs to change to make it more relevant. While I love the concept and history of the FA Cup, I can’t disagree with these opinions. But I believe one of the major reasons why the FA Cup is losing its interest is not because of the soccer on the pitch, but the way (or lack of way) that it’s televised.
As the oldest soccer competition in the world, the FA Cup is stuck in the past. Every year we keep on hoping for an upset of Hereford proportions but it rarely if ever materializes. Not only is that a reflection of the gulf in talent between the Premier League and lower leagues in England, but it’s also testament to clubs lower down the league prioritizing their own league promotion chances over that of the FA Cup.
But the main issue with the FA Cup is not the decisions by managers to pick second-string teams. It’s the fact that the way the FA Cup is televised is stuck in the stone age.
Take, for example, this weekend’s matches in the FA Cup 3rd Round. On a busy weekend with 32 games, only 9 were televised live for a global audience. That means that 71% of the FA Cup 3rd Round games weren’t televised at all. Contrast that with what we’ve been accustomed to with coverage of the Premier League where every single match is televised live in most countries outside the UK. The last time when we were faced with the Premier League having anywhere near 71% of games not televised would have been a decade ago.
So for fans of club soccer, the FA Cup means that many soccer fans go without being able to watch their team live on television. For example, this weekend that meant that fans of the following teams would have seen zero live coverage — Everton, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Newcastle United, Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Fulham, Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, West Brom and countless other clubs.
Imagine a typical soccer match day on television in 2017. Not only is every game televised for the global audience, but we’re also accustomed to whiparound shows such as Goal Rush (NBC Sports) and, for other competitions, MultiMatch 90 (FOX Sports) as well as Champion League Goals Show (BT Sport). If the FA Cup had a similar show where their cameras could switch to goals being scored around England as they went in, this would be a very captivating program.
The problem with the FA Cup is that there are so many games happening at once (23 in the 10am-Noon ET Saturday time slot alone) that it’s impossible for the broadcasters to know ahead of time which match may feature the shocking win by an underdog. They “place their bets” by selectively picking the games that typically have the non-league underdog team playing at home against a top team in the hopes that an upset may occur. That provides the TV viewer with the beauty of watching a televised game in a small, quaint stadium but it often ends in disappointment given the final result while seeing that upsets in other matches happened without them being televised.
Why is the FA Cup TV coverage stuck in the stone age? It’s because it’s still made for radio.
For anyone who had a chance to listen to today’s broadcasts from BBC Radio Five Live or talkSPORT, you’ll know that the magic of the tournament is still alive. There’s pure joy in listening to reports coming in via radio from the stadiums around England. The drama is felt in real time as the Davids score against the Goliaths. It may not mean that the underdogs will go on to victory, but we can dream as it happens.
As it currently stands, you can’t do that with television. You’re typically stuck watching the only one or two games that are available at that given time. Yes, there sometimes is the score box in the top corner where you can see the latest results of other games, but you don’t feel the drama or get to understand the context of what just happened. With radio, you do. You’re immediately switched to the local radio reporter who is in the stadium who can provide a live report of what just happened. It just doesn’t matter who’s playing. You get sucked into the drama of the FA Cup in real time.
With television as it currently stands, you don’t get that. You could if the FA and TV broadcasters had more cameras set up at every single FA Cup game, which would be costly (hence one of the reasons why so few games are televised live). But it could happen with the 2018 season given that the FA will receive more than $1 billion in rights to overseas TV deals. Whether it will or not, we’ll have to wait and see. Initial reports are that the FA plans on putting the money into “more investment in pitches, facilities and participation programmes.”
If the FA Cup is to thrive in the future, it’s imperative that far more games (if not all) are available for live broadcast worldwide. As it is now, the different broadcasters who have the FA Cup TV rights worldwide are the ones that are wrongfully blamed for not broadcasting games despite it not being their fault and them having no control over the situation. It’s not FOX Sports’ fault. They simply broadcast the games that are available to them. Hopefully in the future, this will change from the FA level. But for now, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.