Ian Burrell: Coverage now in league of its own

TV games that pre-date Sky Sports seem to belong in the same archive as the 1966 commentary
Click to follow
The Independent Online

it was an irony of the recent sexism saga involving the former Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys that their prehistoric banter came from the culture of a previous era in British football. A time before Sky Sports arrived to modernise the game.

In April 1991, English football was back in European competition for the first season after a five-year ban resulting from the shame of Heysel, Graham Taylor had begun his disastrous reign as England manager and Mr Gray had hung up his boots only a year before.

Since then football coverage has been so transformed that televised games that immediately pre-date Sky Sports seem almost to belong on the same shelf in the archive as Kenneth Wolstenholme's commentary on the Boys of '66.

Within a year Sky Sports introduced the permanent clock and scoreline in the corner of the screen (previously broadcasters offered this feature for the last 20 minutes of a game). Whereas terrestrial broadcasters thought putting six cameras at a ground was revolutionary, Sky installed 24. Behind the red button, Sky viewers could switch camera angle or focus on a single footballer with the "player cam" (both ideas have since been dropped but were innovative at the time).

The value of the Premier League to Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is BSkyB's largest shareholder and is seeking to become its outright owner, is clear from the amount spent on broadcasting rights. The first five-year deal was worth £304m in total. The next, which began in 1997, cost Sky £670m over four seasons. Rights to broadcast games between 2010 and 2013 were purchased for £1.782bn (the vast majority of that paid by Sky). That money has made the Premier League the richest in world football, helping English teams to attract the top international talent and to dominate the later stages of the Champions League (another football brand heavily promoted by Sky Sports).

To some football diehards, BSkyB has ruined their game. Kick-off times are routinely switched to accommodate TV schedules, clubs have hiked ticket prices to exorbitant levels and spent the broadcast money on the wages of aloof players who arrive at training in their Sky-funded baby Bentleys. And for all the pulsating high-stakes action that thrills audiences around the world, the English national team still lags behind its rivals in technical skill. Other sports fans are enraged that Sky has stolen away Test cricket and Ryder Cup golf from terrestrial audiences.

Sky can point to having transformed rugby league into a dynamic summer sport with Super League and revitalised rugby union with the Premiership and Heineken Cup. Its cricket coverage boasts the commentary of an elite team of former England captains. And since 1998, with Sky Sports News it has been able to match a hunger for constant updates that sports fans have come to demand with the growth of the internet. As Andy Gray always used to say: "What a hit!"