Do I not like that . . . A game's bad moves: Rogan Taylor believes that the demands of TV have had an adverse effect on the rhythm of football

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The Independent Online
WHAT would you normally be doing at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March? Relaxing after lunch? Returning from a drive to visit relatives? Preparing for Monday and the week ahead?

Last month I found myself hurrying to a football match at Anfield and cursing the commercial mismanagement of the game that had forced me into it. Even Liverpool's victory over their local rivals Everton could not entirely displace the feeling of being out of place, standing on the Kop early on a Sunday evening.

It was a feeling shared by many around me on the terrace that day. The game had been moved to such an unlikely hour to accommodate the live television broadcast of another game at 3pm. Active football fans are now expected to turn up - sometimes at venues hundreds of miles away from their home towns - at almost any time TV scheduling requires. But it is not television's fault that the games are subject to the agendas dictated by TV executives. It is the fault of those who sold the television rights without including in the contract some protection for supporters whose financial contribution to the game still equals the pounds 60m paid by BSkyB for one season's Premiership football.

The consequences may be profound. Disrupting the fundamental pulse of football's life - the rhythmic, weekly cycle of league fixtures, enlivened at traditional points by FA Cup Saturdays - strikes at the heart of the game's subconscious attraction. One of the primary reasons for professional football's spectacular explosion of popularity in the late-Victorian, newly industrialised towns of Lancashire was its effective replacement of the old rural festivals that once regulated the lives of village-dwellers.

Times have indeed changed, but for the past 100 years, through two world wars and a stream of innovations and inventions, football on a Saturday afternoon remained a fixture. Lives were hung around it like snug-fitting coats. Now football is programmed with an unpredictability almost impossible to draw close to with the instinctive warm expectation of old.

The once breezy commercialisation of the game has gathered a hurricane pace in recent years. The televisualisation of football is its most significant element. It is wrenching the game from its traditional moorings and no one really knows where the prevailing winds will end up blowing it. It leaves behind many who cannot afford the going rate.

I hate the thought of football losing for ever its individual tap roots into the communities that have supported the game for so long. For me - and I reckon many others too - football isn't just a professional sport, a commercial commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. It has meant much more than that to those of us who have drunk deeply at its well.

It is true that football at a professional level has been under-commercialised, and therefore underfunded, from its birth over 100 years ago. The emergence of the game from the 19th-century public schools, and its early administration by a group of 'old boys' who formed the FA, meant that the very idea of commercialisation was anathema. Even after the leading clubs had formed themselves into limited companies, the FA regulations severely restricted the profits that could be made from share ownership.

The professional game did need to open itself to new sources of revenue to face the financial costs of the Taylor Report and to compete in a European market. But buying and selling the game like a tin of baked beans is crazy. The 'customers' at football matches are no ordinary consumers. No one casts the ashes of their dead down the aisle of a Tesco's supermarket, but they do in football grounds all over the country.

Football at Sunday tea-time - like darkness at noon - signifies the underlying commercial chaos that faces those who fail to understand or protect football from the unbridled predations of the marketplace. It is precisely because the peculiar game reaches deep into the collective heart, speaking across cultures in a universal language, that the world of commerce finds it irresistible. Football can negotiate its own price, but if it sells down the river those who actually invest the game with value, it will be worth nothing in the end.

Rogan Taylor works at the Centre for Football Research at Leicester University. His book, Football and Its Fans, is published by Leicester University Press.

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