Football: Has TV reached saturation point?

The broadcasting revolution: New technology enables big clubs to cash in but the fans are becoming more selective
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The Independent Online
IT HID it well but, when the BBC covered Chelsea's European Cup- Winners' Cup final last May, it wanted them to lose. Nothing personal, just that the deals had already been struck. If Chelsea won, Channel 5 would cover their defence of the trophy this season; if they lost, and thus went into the Uefa Cup, the BBC would follow the campaign.

Chelsea won and Channel 5's first reward was a figure of 2.8m viewers for their first-leg tie with Helsingborg last week. Not a huge figure compared to ITV's 8.3m audience for Manchester United versus Barcelona the following night, but more than double the fledgling channel's usual evening ratings. Next week Channel 5 follows up with European ties involving Aston Villa, Liverpool and Newcastle. Next month it has England's match in Luxembourg.

Like BSkyB, whose success owes much to Premiership football, Channel 5 is, to quote Rupert Murdoch's phrase, using sport "as a battering ram". The channel's record audience is 5m, for England's match in Poland shortly after its April 1997 launch. It paid a reported pounds 1m, then way over the going rate, but it was money well spent as it persuaded more people to get their sets retuned to receive the channel than any number of poster advertisements.

Football is clearly good for television, but is television good for football? That depends. For the top players and clubs the impact is almost entirely beneficial as income rockets, taking wages with it. For the rest the consequences are at best mixed, at worst catastrophic.

Either way the future is pay-per-view, through the medium of digital television, and it is imminent. On Tuesday the Nationwide League said it would experiment with pay-per-view matches after Christmas. On Wednesday the BBC launched its digital service, with BSkyB following suit next Thursday.

Digital has the potential to show every match from every division, but already there are signs that the market is becoming saturated. Next week 11 live matches are available to English audiences in five days, taking the September total to 36. Even Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, has said: "I sometimes think: 'not football again'." Sky's audience of 1.53m for Sunday's Arsenal v Manchester United match looks alarming given that the same fixture last November pulled in 2.86m, still Sky's best Premiership audience. Sunday's hot weather was a factor but a senior figure within the company said he fears the "glut of football, particularly additional terrestrial games, is a factor".

Yet this year's average (1.23m before Thursday's game) is only slightly down on the figure for last autumn and audiences are expected to rise as the season progresses. In a fragmenting market, football remains value for money to broadcasters, although Sky admits it is "seeing more discrimination" from viewers.

It is not only TV audiences who are becoming selective; so is the paying punter. While Sky Sports' limited reach (4m subscribers) helps gates hold up well, matches for which season ticket holders have to pay, such as cup ties and European matches, can be seriously affected by terrestrial TV. Last week Blackburn and Chelsea had very poor gates for European ties, as did Newcastle, whose tie - though not nationally available - pulled in 550,000 viewers on Tyne-Tees.

Sheila Spiers, the vice-chair of the Football Supporters' Association and a Liverpool fan, admitted of her team's match next week against Kosice: "We're 3-0 up so I'm not likely to pay pounds 18 for a ticket if I can watch it on television for nothing. There was once talk that television income would mean a drop in admission prices but there is no sign of that happening yet. If pay-per-view comes, everyone should get in for nothing: we are the extras in the extravaganza."

It is not just the televised clubs which are affected. Few Nationwide League clubs like competing with Manchester United in Europe, and 19 Saturday fixtures on 10 October have been moved to avoid clashing with Sky's coverage of England's European Championship match with Bulgaria.

The FSA, added Spiers, is "totally against pay-per-view but believe it is inevitable". This intransigent view may seem blinkered as there will be occasions, when matches are sold out or supporters are unable to get to a game, when pay-per-view will benefit fans. It is based, however, on the long-term view that it will be bad for supporters especially if, as is mooted, the bulk of the Premiership programme is moved to Sunday, a notoriously difficult time for travelling fans. It is also seen as likely to accelerate the gap between clubs. "It is all about income," Spiers said. "The elite clubs will benefit and the big clubs get bigger."

There are signs of this on the continent, where pay-per-view is already under way and picking up after after a slow start, in which a Dutch attempt failed and an Italian service stalled. Spain, where the pay-per-view channel had 1.4m "match buys" at pounds 4.50 last season, is the biggest success, while Italy now has 120,000 regular viewers at pounds 6.50 a game.

The Italian experience is ominous. The big four clubs (Juventus, Milan, Internazionale and relegated but well-supported Napoli) have tired of sharing revenue largely generated by themselves and this year signed their own deal, bringing them an increased share and provoking an ongoing dispute.

This is likely to be replicated here, especially if the Office of Fair Trading wins its case contesting the Premier League's right to negotiate television deals collectively. The case comes up in January and the indication is that the OFT may win, though the delaying effects of an appeal, or a compromise solution, should ensure the current deal survives through to 2001.

After that it would be a free-for-all, with clubs like Manchester United able to restrict their home matches to subscribers or sell to the highest bidder. Less well-supported teams would be reduced to making what they can from the visit of bigger clubs. As for the lower divisions, how many people would pay to watch Halifax against Hartlepool, broadcast by Sky this month under their obligation to show a dozen lower division matches a season? Even if it was shown on pay-per-view, it would not earn much.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the heart of capitalism has socialist sport, with all teams in the NFL sharing income - not just TV but even merchandising. That is inconceivable here but, notes the author and analyst Alex Fynn, "even the biggest clubs need other teams to play against".

At least those supporters unable - or unwilling - to meet pay-per-view prices can listen to matches on the radio. Can't they? Not necessarily. Digital radio has the same potential as TV and the BBC has already broadcast an entire Premiership programme simultaneously. While the BBC is committed to "free-to-air" programming, commercial stations are not and, increasingly, are outbidding the BBC for radio rights - Talk Radio is covering Manchester United's Champions' League games.

While there are no plans as yet to encrypt signals so that radio goes pay-per-hear, the potential is there. The future could be a case of, to paraphrase Timothy Leary, "tune in, turn on, pay up - or drop out".

THE PAST

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TELEVISED FOOTBALL

1936

Television cameras record Arsenal v Everton fixture.

1937

First live broadcast: Arsenal v Arsenal reserves.

1938

First live FA Cup final: Preston 1 Huddersfield 0. 10,000 watch.

1964

Match of the Day starts on BBC2 with Liverpool v Arsenal (3-2). It is quickly poached by BBC1, but moved from early evening to late night.

1970s

Highlights programmes, Match of the Day, Sportsnight (BBC) and The Big Match (ITV), rule.

1979

ITV attempts "Snatch of the Day" with exclusive bid, but High Court rules against. Joint highlights coverage, at pounds 2.05m pa, continues.

1983

First live league football, BBC/ITV show five games each for combined pounds 2.6m pa.

1985

Football League blocks coverage until January, then accepts pounds 1.3m for rest of season.

1986

Joint deal worth pounds 3.1m pa

1988

First exclusive deals totalling pounds 17m pa. ITV has Football League/League Cup; BBC/BSkyB gets FA Cup/England. New figure regarded as huge deal.

1992

Premier League starts with five-year BSkyB/BBC deal worth pounds 60.8m pa. ITV pays pounds 24m to Football League over four years. C4 starts showing Italian football.

1997

Sky agrees pounds 670m four-year deal with Premiership. With other domestic agreements English football's TV income is pounds 243m pa Including European matches. English football now receives more from TV every four days than it earned in a year a decade ago. However, changes in the sharing of the spoils mean clubs in the lowest division take 45 days to make same as a decade ago.

THE PRESENT

THIS MONTH'S LIVE TELEVISED FOOTBALL

Date Fixture Channel Att Ave att 97/98

4 Sept Halifax v Hartlepool Sky Sports 2 3,820 2,541

5 Sweden v England Sky Sports 2 36,000 n/a

5 Lithuania v Scotland Channel 5 4,500 n/a

5 Wales v Italy BBC Wales 23,160 *37,000

6 Oxford v Portsmouth Sky Sports 2 6,626 7,500

8 Sunderland v Bristol City Sky Sports 2 34,111 34,468

9 Chelsea v Arsenal Sky Sports 1 36,644 33,387

11 Tranmere v Huddersfield Sky Sports 2 5,770 8,000

13 Spurs v Middlesbro Sky Sports 1 30,427 29,143

13 Norwich v Bury Sky Sports 2 16,919 14,445

13 Perugia v Juventus Channel 4 4,500 n/a

15 Blackburn v Lyons BBC1 13,646 25,252

15 Kosice v Liverpool Channel 5 4,500 n/a

15 Northampton v W Ham Sky Sports 2 7,254 6,392

15 Udinese v Leverkusen Eurosport n/a n/a

16 Man Utd v Barcelona ITV 53,601 55,164

16 Lens v Arsenal Carlton Select 36,000 n/a

17 Chelsea v Helsingborg Channel 5 17,714 33,387

17 Newcastle v P Belgrade Tyne Tees 26,599 36,671

17 Lev Sofia v Copenhagen Eurosport n/a n/a

18 Walsall v Notts County Sky Sports 2 3,991 4,063

20 Arsenal v Man Utd Sky Sports 1 38,142 38,053

20 West Brom v Bradford Sky Sports 2 12,426 16,650

20 Rangers v Celtic Sky Sports 3 50,026 49,076

20 Salernitana v Milan Channel 4 n/a n/a

21 Blackburn v Chelsea Sky Sports 1 23,113 25,252

22 West Ham v Northamptn Sky Sports 2 25,435 25,075

24 Man Utd v Liverpool Sky Sports 1 55,181 55,164

* Wales v Italy was played at Anfield, Liverpool. Comparative attendance is from Wales v Netherlands, Cardiff Arms Park, Oct 1996.

Not available nationally Research: Sam Wallace

THE FUTURE

DIGITAL/PAY-PER-VIEW: HOW IT WORKS

You get home late to find the match is already 1-1. No problem, press a button and the goals are instantly flashed up to see.

That is one of the facilities Pay-Per-View will bring to armchair viewers. They will also be able to choose their own camera angle and order replays on demand.

None of this will be available immediately but interactive TV is not far away; viewers in France can already watch one match and be alerted to goals elsewhere in time to switch over to see the replay.

This is possible through the development of Digital television which, together with PPV, will revolutionise televised football.

Digital means a vast expansion in capacity allowing 40-odd terrestrial channels and hundreds on satellite and cable. For football this means dozens of matches could be televised simultaneously.

Most of these would have to be paid for. In the short term Sky insists it will only put matches on PPV which are additional to the present contract - which expires in summer 2001 - though this may alter if the Office of Fair Trading wins its case against the Premier League and voids the deal.

Sky will face competition from OnDigital, which is backed by Carlton and Granada, and the BBC.

The BBC began broadcasting its Choice channel, which includes original football magazine shows, this week, but only industry insiders will be able to receive it until 1 October when Sky, who will provide both programming and the satellite platform, launch. Digital on cable arrives next year.

To receive Digital you will need a decoder, sold by Sky at a heavily subsidised pounds 199 (pounds 159 to current subscribers). Sky's PPV programmes will only be accessible to viewers with a Sky subscription (minimum pounds 6.99 a month).

It is anticipated that 200,000 homes will have digital within a year, and more than 10m within 10 years.

Digital Radio, which is already available, provides greater clarity of sound as well as choice, but the equipment is far more expensive: pounds 500- pounds 1,000 a set and only available for in-car format at present. Home tuners, which could be ready by January, will start at pounds 799, but prices for both types should drop sharply.

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