From where I stand

Here he goes. Pete Davies on Sky, ITV, the BBC, and, oh yes, football
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The Independent Online
Remember football in the Eighties? That squalid ruck of a game stained with loutish upheaval and serial tragedy? What a change is come upon us. Courtesy of Sky, our national sport will likely have feasted on a billion pounds' worth of new money before the century's end, so as the likes of Gullit, Brolin and Juninho parade their skills beneath soaring new stands for five-figure weekly wages, last week's flurry of news came as confirmation that a broadcaster without football risks is falling off the map.

As well as the Premier League, Sky now has five years of the three divisions of the Football League for pounds 125m. It has also climbed into bed with ITV to get the FA Cup; ITV's takeover of the Cup Final in 1998, a BBC preserve since 1938, is a coup that leaves the BBC's cupboard looking very Mother Hubbard indeed. Already, some weeks, Sportsnight is reduced to a patchy desert of snooker, obscure boxing matches, scraps of motor sport. Now, with suggestions floated that ITV might bid against Sky for the next Premier League contract in 1997 (prices starting at pounds 700m) it's a possibility that even Match of the Day could find its ashes scattered in the goalmouth.

It is hard to see Sky letting go of the Premier League. It is its key selling point, revealing that big time sport reels in the subscribers like no other product. Sky claims well over four million subscribers; John Birt, the BBC director-general, has predicted that its subscription income could be double the BBC's revenue within a decade. For a draw like that, they will up the price to whatever it takes; does ITV have the airtime to screen 140 live games a season anyway?

Traditionalists have viewed the whole business as a horror show from the start, but when did anyone have a divine right to watch a game of football? It could be argued that pre-Sky, the terrestrial broadcasters had served the viewer pretty poorly (and got the product cheap). Besides, how much football can a person watch? I'm not getting a dish; I'm socially dysfunctional enough as it is without the opportunity to vegetate in front of wall-to-wall Andy Gray. So where I stand on this is in the back room of my local on a Monday night, getting a cricked neck.

Does this notion that we're being deprived of choice wash? Certainly, people who can't afford a dish are missing out, but the Football Association says it is committed to ensuring that all football doesn't end up on one channel; earthbound homes will still get highlights, the FA Cup Final, the European nights, and the Italians on Channel 4. Now, if Sky got all the European games, I would start protesting - the current national ritual whereby our fantastically wealthy clubs are ignominiously thrashed by teams from Azerbaijani tractor co-operatives should be a spectacle available to all.

But where, really, are we getting? Sky has jacked up football's price tag until it's become so costly that the BBC, it seems, is throwing in the towel. Beyond mere sport, in the accurately dismissive words of Maggie Brown in this paper a year ago, the game has instead become "a male soap opera, a strange world where drama, dirt, deals and a certain type of brilliant-but-limited physical talent mix and swirl around".

Seeking respite from the overweening, all-pervading, entirely hubristic glitter of it all, last year I started watching women's football. It's cheap and cheerful, and it's got its head on its shoulders instead of its snout in a brown envelope; no one's chucking the women a billion pounds. But what do you know? If you want to watch the Women's FA Cup Final, yup, you guessed it, it's on Sky.

Pete Davies is the author of 'All Played Out'. His new book, 'I Lost My Heart to the Belles', about women's football, will be published next year.

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