Greed and self-delusion are no strangers to the separate worlds of television and football, so it comes as little surprise that the mating of these two industries has passed on the same genetic flaws to the spawn it has created. While the first-born, the Premiership-BSkyB alliance, continues to grow bloated and complacent with wealth and self-adoration, its sibling, the Football League-ITV Digital partnership has quickly turned out to be the runt of this particular media litter.
The shock that the Football League clubs have expressed at the apparent treachery by those in charge of ITV Digital is testimony to their naivete about their role in the relationship. Did these club executives really think that there was a bond of decency between the two partners rather than a purely pragmatic business deal? Equally, the craven retreat by the ITV television executives from a deal that is merely one year old tells us how little they knew about the appeal of the "content" they were buying at such vast expense.
Their model, of course, was the deal that Rupert Murdoch hatched in the early 1990s when the top division of a unified Football League was lured away from the other three in return for a greater share of television income provided by Murdoch's fledgling BSkyB. The pact made the Premiership into the richest league in Europe, while also turning BSkyB into one of the continent's most powerful broadcasters. As working-class households signed up for the couch-potato's dream diet of round-the-clock football, the Murdoch "mushrooms" sprouted on the walls of houses across the nation, and satellite television became a genuine broadcasting force.
"Football was my battering-ram," Murdoch announced at one of his gatherings. The ITV Digital people swallowed this mantra whole when they created a deal for the rump of the Football League two years ago. The logic was obvious: if it worked for Murdoch, it should work for us. The bait, however, has proved rather less appetising to the public this time around.
It is true that a fudged launch and a belated awareness of the importance of branding left ITV Digital as a less than household name. It is also true that confusion over what set-top box was the best means of delivery added to the shortfall in subscribers. But it was the fanciful idea that lower-division football could be as appealing as the rich and exotic menus served up elsewhere – live Champions League matches on ITV's main terrestrial channel and live Premiership, Spanish and German league matches on BSkyB. At various times, live football is available seven nights a week, including four back-to-back matches on Sundays. In the face of such a glut of televised football, ITV Digital's investment in the three divisions of the Football League was always doomed. The appeal of the Premiership over the past decade has changed the structure of football, from fan-base to viewing habits to cultural identity.
The audience for Friday's ITV Sport Channel offering – West Bromwich Albion beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the First Division – probably consisted of those locals who couldn't get to the game, or to a few hundred exiles who couldn't afford the time or money to travel. The bulk of the fans targeted by ITV would have been at the ground itself. While the Premiership clubs, linked to the larger cities, can draw support and merchandise income from across the country, the lower-division clubs have remained fairly parochial enterprises, relying on local support to sustain them. The Premiership escapees did deign to allow a certain amount of money to trickle down through a lesser share of broadcast rights and the occasional transfer, but their essence was to keep as much for themselves.
This steady impoverishment of the smaller clubs had already started to claim victims – Bury and York City have been going through the mill of administration and a search for benefactors – but the denial of the bulk of the ITV Digital money would certainly cause an immediate crisis in at least a dozen clubs, for whom this cashflow has been a survival kit. Many clubs have already spent the initial payments. The only winners will be m'learned friends, as the clubs try to sort out the worst of two options: getting some of the promised money from an ailing broadcaster or getting none from a defunct one.
Those who predicted that the Premiership would sever its last links to the other 72 league clubs will now feel that the endgame is at hand. Some will see it as the inevitable Darwinian process, while others will hark back to the days of club solidarity and fight for a new unity. But the question has to be asked whether the failure of a few clubs matters in the face of all our nation's other wants.
I write as someone old enough to recall the days when Liverpool players would pass my gate on their way to catch the bus to the training ground. They lived in club houses that were rented out to them. You could dangle an autograph book one morning and collect it on the next, filled with the names of all the club's players. This is only 40 years ago, but it must seem like a Neolithic Age to those reared on players driving Mercedes saloons, players with modelling contracts and image rights, who can earn more in one week than many fans could earn in a decade.
Most of the lower-division clubs retain their link to their communities through social nights, fund-raising dinners and the Saturday night pink – the local sports paper. This is what could be lost if the domino effect sets in among the smaller outfits. Part-time players, relegation, bankruptcy, extinction, and a housing estate where a 100-year-old ground used to be. Unless there is an equitable solution to the funding crisis, much of the bedrock on which football rests will crumble away.
There remains another solution. Under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Co-Operative Bank, a number of football trusts have been set up, enabling supporters to become both shareholders and boardroom activists. Non-league Bath City started the trend, and Lincoln City and Chesterfield have both been rescued from financial chaos by the setting up of their own trusts. This may not sound much but the enabling of local supporters, so long excluded from the running of their clubs, may yet be the new survival model among the lower divisions. The supporters' boards may seem like a vestige of old Labour, but in the cases where they have operated they have improved on the previous regime of management by clique.
And while the Premiership may look down on all this with lofty disdain, some of its shrewder operators know in their bones that it will be their turn next. Unsupportable rates of pay will be capped very soon. By the time the next television contract comes up for renewal, the figures being offered will mean a wholesale pruning of the financial excesses of English football. The good times will soon be over.Reuse content