Football: Mindless exploitation of the popular game

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The Independent Online
FROM THE extreme of Alan Hardaker's reactionary declaration 30 years ago that matches would not be televised live while he remained secretary of the Football League, to the bombardment we have come under.

This week the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, told a pay-per-view conference: "I'm in the business and even I'm saying: `Oh, no, not another live game'."

Taylor's concern is understandable. Sky's transmission of tonight's big encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool makes it 15 live matches in 11 days on satellite and terrestrial channels. Even allowing for Sky's limited audience, this mindless exploitation of football's popularity should carry a health warning.

Imagine a time in the future when students of sporting history go back to see where the rot set in for a game that had risen above all others. If so, who was to blame?

The clubs, in their myopic failure to understand that greed brings its own retribution? Opportunists who saw football as a vehicle for personal prosperity? Administrators blind to the possibility of overkill?

Perhaps all three. Certainly football is on dangerous ground if it believes that there is no limit to what can be extracted from the public, both in ticket prices and television subscriptions.

I was mentioning this the other day to a friend of many years, an Arsenal season-ticket holder who first watched them during the Second World War and still follows the game closely. What he does not do is switch on automatically whenever football is shown on television.

"Of course, if it's my club on the box I'm glued to the screen, but otherwise it takes the best teams to get my attention,' he said. "I'm sure there are people so addicted to the game that they are suckers for everything that's shown, but I don't know any."

Another friend often works on his stamp collection while keeping an ear cocked to the television commentary. "I know that the exciting moments will be repeated in action replays, so I get on with what I'm doing," he said.

There may be a lesson here for the clubs and their television paymasters. If people are coming to regard football on television as background entertainment, they are unlikely to subscribe on a match-to-match basis.

The vibes I am getting correspond roughly to a decision taken personally when the Premier League took up with Rupert Murdoch. It was not only to be selective about televised football, but to ration the experience.

Later, when appearing on a BBC radio programme, I discovered that the Football Association's chief executive, Graham Kelly, had chosen a similar policy. Kelly may not remember this, but I have it on a recording.

You can come across football managers who admit privately that they only watch televised matches from which valuable information may be gleaned, or those that promise to be exceptional. "There is too much football on television," the Football Association's director of coaching, Howard Wilkinson, said when in charge at Leeds United. A man of varied tastes, Wilkinson feared the effect of overkill.

Sky's transmission of last Sunday's match between Arsenal and Manchester United included the usual hyperbolic references to forthcoming attractions: a full week of football on Murdoch's channels. This made you wonder where the game is going, and what the future holds for it.

Anyone with half a grasp of simple economics is bound to feel that the Football League's proposed experiment with pay-per-view is asking too much of potential subscribers. The average viewing figures for matches shown live by Sky Sports and the two main terrestrial channels are down further from last season. The recent Uefa Cup tie between Liverpool and Kosice reached only 2.2m viewers when put out by Channel 5.

What we have is a situation that caused Taylor to suggest that English football could find itself looking at a dead goose, instead of golden eggs.

"These are matches the viewer is getting free or on subscription," Taylor said. "What is going to happen when they are asked to pay?"

If football's negotiators have any sense, and sometimes you have to wonder, they should give that thought some serious attention.