The climax of the Cup season, football and rugby football, is a timely moment to review the relationship between sport and its paymasters. Today's fifth-round FA Cup schedule – Everton v Crewe (BBC1, 1.30pm), Chelsea v Preston (Sky Sports 2, 4pm), and Newcastle v Manchester City (BBC 1, 7pm) – is a fair pointer to the prevailing balance of power. But this "triple header", as the Americans would term it, is a mere warm-up for the ultimate sell-out on Sunday, 10 March, when, by the decree of the television executives, the quarter-finals will start at 11.30am and continue non-stop until the prestige of the world's oldest and grandest Cup competition is finally consigned to the bin along with the polystyrene cartons from the TV dinners.
Football's old dame has survived some insults in recent years, notably the defection of Manchester United to a spurious Club World Championship in Brazil (endorsed by the Football Association), the nonsense of weekend scheduling and the temporary shift of the third round from its traditional date on the first Saturday of the New Year. Managers of clubs threatened with relegation from the Premiership have dismissed the Cup as an irrelevance, without either consulting the fans or players or providing any logical explanation as to why winning a Cup match and surviving in the League should be mutually exclusive ambitions.
Just ask Peter Taylor, once of Leicester City now of Brighton and Hove Albion, about the magic of the Cup. Leicester's demise began with a humiliating defeat by Wycombe Wanderers. But 10 March is an all-time low, 130 years of history reduced to armchair fodder, fans relegated to the status of unpaid extras in a B movie.
Fans, remember them? Tonight, as you head for the Horlicks, just spare a thought for the Manchester City supporters filing back over the Pennines. City's last 3pm League kick-off at Maine Road was 29 November (v Rotherham); the next one is 16 March (v Crystal Palace). Nearly four months without the Saturday ritual of the pub, the game and home for tea and Sports Report. But the one-eyed god has to be fed and City's appearance guarantees good ratings.
It is football's fault. The clubs and the FA have rushed to feed from the trough without so much as a nod to the traditions of the game or the wellbeing of those who pay for the privilege. There has been television, but no real vision, no proper stewardship and no calculation of the future beyond checking the number of noughts on the bottom line of the next multi-million pound broadcasting contract. No one has stopped to look or learn, so the calendar is littered with games that are watched neither from the stands nor the armchairs.
It is also the fault of the fans, who rival commuters in their blind loyalty to incompetent organisations. If more of them stopped going to matches, reacted to daft kick-off times by staying at home and not turning on the television, the suits would soon be forming an orderly queue outside the boardroom demanding to know what had happened to the traditional passion of English football. Nothing is more terrifying to a sports television executive than rows of empty seats indicating to advertisers and viewers alike that they are in the wrong place.
Yet football should consider itself lucky. Rugby fans have sent out search parties to track down the Heineken Cup. Since the BBC won the contract and sublet to every other television station from here to Ice Station Zebra, including – and work this one out – ITV, games have been spread far and wide. The schedule for the first round of fixtures back in September included 12 matches starting at 12 different times over three days.
One match kicked off at 19.10, another at 14.50, which would be understandable if the sponsor was Timex or the speaking clock, rather less so when it is merely televison playing power games. A competition which has established a rich heritage through the support of television and an intelligent sponsor deserved better treatment, not least because of the possibilities of injustice in the latter stages of qualification. An assurance by the tournament organisers that the last round of matches at the pool stage would all be played at the same time, to stop any team claiming an advantage, quickly evaporated when television began to let off steam. But sooner or later the integrity of the tournament will be damaged if the rules are subject to such manipulation by commercial pressures. The game is mature enough to stand firm.
Apart from any sporting consideration, confused time-keeping is bad marketing. In America, the spiritual home of televised sport, they have long since learnt the value of routine to spectator and viewer. Monday night football has become an institution, as ingrained in the culture as Thanksgiving Day or the Star-Spangled Banner. As relative novices here, we are still subject to the whim of some TV whizzkid who has spotted a niche market for Grimsby v Watford on a Thursday night. In fact, the dismal ratings for ITV Digital have simply mapped the outer limits of football's appeal.
The problem stems from the proliferation of channels, each subject to its own scheduling pressures, each one desperate to jump on the bandwagon. In the last round of television contracts, packages were randomly assembled and flogged off to the highest bidder like used cars at an auction. Football rejoiced because more than £1bn flowed into the coffers at prices vastly over-inflated in the current climate. At the time, the joint deal between Sky and the BBC for the FA Cup and international football was considered a model for the future. But the Cup is beginning to pay a heavy price for all the attention.
The sponsors have a significant part to play in tidying up this mess. Though television is the central attraction, being so obviously in thrall to the camera does nothing for the integrity of a tournament. They are putting money into their sport and should have their say. Axa, sponsors of the FA Cup, have certainly had a voice in confining Cup fixtures to a weekend, not Friday night to Monday night. Heineken are believed to be concerned about the diverse scheduling. The FA have adopted a more coherent marketing strategy in an attempt to "revitalise" what they considered to be an ailing competition. But they have utterly betrayed their faith by allowing the quarter-finals, one of the showpiece occasions of the season, to be so blatantly hijacked. There are some things money should not be able to buy, even in the land of greed and money that is modern sport.
The clubs have a responsibility too. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and cupping their hands, they can exercise their own power, which is more considerable than realise. The simple, but untested, truth is that television now needs sport as much as sport needs television. What else will fill the screens? Curling, darts, snooker, mud wrestling. The great age of sports television has gone. It is time someone realised it and asked for our sport back.
The potatoes blight
It's official: according to a report from UK Sport delivered last week, we have become a nation of couch potatoes. Doubtless the news will activate the mandarins at the Sports Ministry over the next few months, bringing a host of new initiatives, but ending the sell-off of school playing fields and releasing unused Lottery funds for sport would be intelligent opening gambits.
The sporting authorities might also look in the mirror and ask if enough is being done to entice people away from their armchairs. The idea that television used to inspire children to take up sport appears to be outdated now. Saturation coverage dulls the appetite. Watching television has become a sport of its own. On 10 March, quarter-final day in the FA Cup, it will be much easier to stay at home and watch wall-to-wall football than venture down to the park to play the game.Reuse content