Graham Kelly: Do TV cash transfusions drain the game's lifeblood?

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Although we ageing hackers want to enjoy our summer sports for a little longer, the remorseless television bandwagon has already been hitched to football and will not be uncoupled until after the European Championship Finals next July.

As another season starts, arrangements have been concluded for coverage of the domestic game a year ahead. Sky Sports, which has held the Premier League contract for live coverage since its inception, has renewed its deal for three years, despite the intervention of the European Commission, which demanded the break-up of the rights in the interests of competition.

The agreement comprises four packages of 38 Sunday matches, 38 Monday games, and two other packages of Saturday lunchtime and 5.15pm games. Brussels could still take action on the grounds that the tenders were not sufficiently attractive for other bidders and it is reported that the Glasgow clubs are taking more than a passing interest in the possibility of the contracts being declared invalid.

Similar intervention by the commission over the Uefa Champions' League has resulted in a sharing this season between Sky and ITV. On 16 and 17 September Sky viewers will be able to select up to 14 of the 16 matches and ITV will cover the other two.

The BBC was overjoyed to oust ITV by securing the contract for recorded highlights, with the result that Match of the Day will return to Saturday nights from season 2004-05. That is good news for supporters of a certain age, but, while the BBC won't need to hire the tactics truck from The Premiership, I do hope there is some attempt at a makeover. The last thing we want is a repeat of John Motson's World Cup 2002 foodfest. Undoubtedly, ITV suffered from over-ambition in trying to place The Premiership in an early-evening slot at first. Football is family entertainment, but the whole family, if indeed it stays at home, does not want to watch recorded highlights.

It is doubtful whether, in this age of instant gratification, the market for recorded highlights will survive for too much longer. The terrestrial companies themselves, particularly ITV, dealt it a major blow when they made clear their preference for live or nothing before the advent of satellite in the 1980s.

Sky's build-up to the FA Community Shield from the Millennium Stadium eight days ago featured plenty of plugs for the sponsor, McDonald's, following some heart-warming coverage of young kids in action. This recalled the comments attributed to the Britvic head, Andrew Marsden, at the time the Football Association signed its own television contract renewal earlier in the summer. Britvic distribute Pepsi in the UK and Pepsi, one of the FA's sponsors, were alleged to be less than entirely happy. "The BBC's priority is not going to be showing our commercial properties and we will be talking to the FA about a number of items concerning exposure that are in our contract," said Mr Marsden in a display of quite refreshing candour.

Obviously, the BBC does not have the time available to provide commercial promotion in quite the same manner as Sky does. Time was when the BBC argued that to transmit matches in which the players' shirts carried advertising logos breached its charter, but nobody wants to go back to that hypocritical era.

The BBC deal with the FA is for exclusive coverage of internationals played at home and for the pick of the FA Cup ties. In reality, the FA has received about 30 per cent less from the new £300m combined BBC/Sky deal than the current agreement, which was negotiated in the crazy climate of three years ago.

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, had little sympathy for fans inconvenienced by the matches moved from the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off time under his deal with Sky. He said that it was unrealistic not to expect matches to be moved for television. Revenue from television was now the lifeblood of the game.

I don't know what I find more depressing - the fact that Scudamore made that comment at the press launch of the television contract or that those present had become so deluged by pap from the television moguls that it went unnoticed and unremarked. Surely the lifeblood of the professional game is the honest sweat of the players or the cash of the supporters who pay at the gate?

Over three and a half million of those fans logged on to their clubs' websites in the course of one morning the day the new season's fixtures were published, so there is still plenty of evidence that the appetite for the game remains immense.

How much of that interest is stimulated by television? Could football ever live without it? Was Scudamore right?