Football: Preservation order for Match of the Day?

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The Independent Online
THEY MAY think that it's all over, but it isn't quite. The alliance of the FA Premiership, BSkyB and BBC Sport probably went into the Restrictive Practices Court last Wednesday fearing the worst - that their current contract on football broadcasting was about to be ended with immediate effect. Yet they got a result.

So the Premiership celebrated its own judgement in putting the deal together. BSkyB celebrated its continuing monopoly on live broadcasts of Premiership games, and its lucky escape from having to buy Manchester United in order to guard that monopoly. Meanwhile the BBC cheered the survival of its much-cherished national institution, Match of the Day.

Although some stability has been brought to a game that is changing almost too fast for its own good, that relief may only be temporary. The biggest Premiership clubs are still nursing ambitions to negotiate their own television rights, and there are plenty of broadcasters out there whispering in their ears about the vast incomes available. Indeed, some of them had almost certainly been taking positions in anticipation of the current deal going down.

Granada's pounds 22m input to Liverpool was passed off as an "innocent" investment revolving around catering and publishing rights. Yet their only other previous investment in Liverpool, the city, had been setting The Richard and Judy Show in the Albert Dock. Why the sudden interest in a Scouse culture that they ignored for the best part of their 43 years of broadcasting in the North-west? On Merseyside, the suspicion is that there are more strings to the deal than Mantovani.

Equally, the American communications group NTL was very busy last week. First, it bought a huge part of Cable & Wireless's British infrastructure for pounds 8.2 billion - yes, billion. This makes it the biggest cable operator in Britain, and its digital television service begins in September. So was it mere coincidence that NTL's logo should appear on the shirts of both Celtic and Newcastle for their friendly game last week, and also on the blue Rangers jersey for their European tie?

With Granada embedded in Liverpool, NTL said to be still eyeing Newcastle, and Carlton stalking Arsenal, there will almost certainly be half-a-dozen important club- broadcaster alliances in place by the time the Premiership rights come up for renewal in 2001. It is well nigh inconceivable that the present deal between BSkyB and the BBC will simply be nodded through, at a higher price, despite the apparent acceptance that it is the "common-sense" solution for the game, and the best that the fans can expect. For the irresistible combination of a hunger for greater profits by the top clubs and advanced broadcast technology will dictate otherwise. And a more equitable distribution of broadcast rights will have to be achieved to stave off further legal actions.

Yet, this won't necessarily mean a bad deal for the fans of televised football. Only a limited number of people can get to see the top Premiership games, because of stadium capacity and the high cost of tickets. BSkyB's audiences for their matches average around a million, and of the 60 matches they cover live, I'd guess that perhaps only a dozen have that "must see" factor that makes the monthly subscription worthwhile. So greater televisual access to a greater number of games should come as a blessing both to the clubs and their fans. If you're a Sunderland supporter on the south coast, or a Manchester United fan in Manchester, and can't get a ticket to see a home game, you'd be prepared to pay to watch it live on a cable channel, wouldn't you?

Of course, whatever happens, Match of the Day should be preserved, but it may need parliamentary protection, in the form of a "listing", if the BBC can't meet the new market rates that will prevail in 2001. Indeed, the future broadcasting deals will require a greater degree of policing by government if chaos is not to ensue. Football cannot afford to have constant referrals to the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Restrictive Practices Court, and it may yet require an American sports-style commissioner to steer the game in the right direction. The Football Association is laughably overdue for reform, while the Premiership, which shelters under its wings, may not have the intellectual clout to maintain the struggling ethos of collective bargaining.

In the meantime, fans should enjoy the next two seasons of relative stability before the free- market genie, released six years back, really gets busy in two years' time. The landscape then will include more digital broadcasters, many more live matches spread over these channels at widely varying times, and perhaps even a direct cable service into your home from the Club-U- Like.

ONE INNOVATION that fans will be able to relish in the new Premiership season will be the "wiring up" of the referee and his assistants with microphones and ear-pieces. In the first instance, it will give disgruntled supporters a new variation on the traditional complaint, with "Are you deaf, referee?" being added to "Are you blind?" It should also offer, in the spirit of non-restrictive practice, a chance for fans to hear or read about what goes on in these transmissions, but I suspect that we will be denied such pleasures.

However, the transcript from one of the experimental matches has fallen into my hands and I am now happy to re-produce it under the Freedom of Information Act (pending)...

Referee: All set then, linesmen?

Assistant 1: I'm your assistant, big-head, and don't you forget it.

Assistant 2: Hello, hello? Is somebody saying something?

Referee: Off you go! Bloody hell, it's hot out here. Give lots of off- sides will you, so I can get a breather. And if that little ****er ******* starts swearing, let me know and I'll have him off.

Assistant 1: He's just made a rude gesture behind your back.

Referee: What sort?

Assistant 1: Well, it looked like a man trying to make a shape out of one of them long balloons.

Assistant 2: Can anybody hear me yet? I've got a local cab firm talking in my ear-piece.

Referee: Can you book us one for 10 to five sharp to the station. There's always a lynch mob for me at this ground. So I'm straight down the tunnel and out. Kit on. Christ, is that a goal? He looked off to me?

Assistant 1: Sorry, I was re-tying my boot-laces. I thought he handled it, myself.

Assistant 2: Alan Green's saying he was well off on Radio 5 Live.

Referee: Bollocks. I'm giving it. I can hear "Who's the bastard in the black?" in my sleep.

Assistant 1: Watch it. That Neil Ruddock's coming up behind you. He doesn't look too pleased. Ooh! Nasty!

Assistant 2: Hello, Casualty? Can you stand by to receive a referee with a whistle stuck up his...

And there, the transmission ended.

FAREWELL THEN, Tony Banks, erstwhile Minister of Sport. Now charged with bringing the 2006 World Cup to England, he will presumably tone down his previous appeal for Britain to have a united international football team. And it's hello to Kate Hoey, the first woman to be sports minister, and a welcome alternative to all those forgettable types who had the job during the 18 years of Tory administration. If anybody can survive what has become a career-ruining job, it should be Miss Hoey. She's already reprimanded Banks for letting Man U out of the FA Cup, and Don King has the rights for when she raises the same point personally with Sir Alex Ferguson.