Lights, camera, action: How TV has shaped modern football

Paul Rouse The extraordinary sums of money that now swirl around the Premier League in England are driven by television.

Lights, camera, action: How TV has shaped modern football

The extraordinary sums of money that now swirl around the Premier League in England are driven by television.

Ticket sales still matter, merchandising still matters, multiple sponsorship deals still matter, cheques written by oligarchs matter — but it is the money that flows from television that is now fundamental to the commercial operation of English soccer.

And yet the television revolution was a long time in the making.

Indeed, the BBC in London actually broadcast the first live pictures of a soccer match in England on April 9, 1938.

For several decades, however, live soccer was just a rare event on television with only the FA Cup final and English soccer internationals being shown.

In 1960 the Football League and the BBC experimented with showing a live First Division match.

The experiment was quickly abandoned after the match ended in a 0-0 draw, apparently because of the fear that the dour nature of the match, if regularly repeated, would adversely affect the image of the game.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, soccer was only shown on BBC (Match of the Day) and ITV (The Big Match) as highlights packages on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

The principal reason for declining to allow regular live broadcasts of soccer matches was the belief attendances at games would be significantly reduced because people would chose to stay at home in front of the television.

Indeed, so deep was the belief television would hamper attendances that the highlights packages were only shown after 10pm on Saturdays due to the notion that if highlights were shown too early in the evening, away fans would not travel to matches.

Only when soccer was in deep financial trouble in the 1980s did the Football League move to allow live soccer to be shown regularly on television.

For several decades the Football League had sold the broadcast rights to the BBC for a nominal fee, but in the 1980s the rights value increased substantially.

In 1983, a deal was done which saw the BBC screen five league matches live on Friday nights and ITV screen five live matches on Sunday afternoons. That initial deal was worth £2.6m (€2.8m) per year.

The highlights packages continued as had previously been the case.

Despite occasional disputes between the soccer authorities and broadcasters this arrangement effectively remained in place until the beginning of the 1990s.

By then, top English soccer clubs had begun to look at different ways to use television to increase their revenue streams.

They had seen how television rights had driven the commercialisation of American sport, in particular.

In respect of the distribution of money earned through television rights the Football League in England had operated in a collectivist fashion, selling the television rights on behalf of the whole league — comprising of all four divisions — and sharing the revenue which accrued in a relatively equal manner.

Clubs in the First Division received 50% of the television money to divide equally among themselves; clubs in the Second Division received 25% while the remaining 25% was divided between clubs in the Third and Fourth Division.

This was a situation the leading clubs in England began agitating to change.

They saw the lucrative television deals which were enjoyed by the major clubs of continental Europe and began to issue threats that they would withdraw from the Football League and establish their own league if they were not given a greater share of the television money.

The prospect of establishing a new league was given massive momentum by changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the regulation of television broadcasting.

These changes heralded the arrival of satellite broadcasting and in November 1990 BSkyB — controlled by Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation — began a drive to win audiences from the existing free-to-air channels.

Murdoch identified football as the key product to attract and hold onto new subscribers.

In 1992, all English First Division clubs resigned en masse and formed the FA Premier League.

With commercial independence from the Football League and with no obligation to share its television rights money with smaller clubs, the founder members of the Premier League signed a deal with BSkyB.

The satellite company paid an estimated £305m (€330m) and, in return, received exclusive rights to screen live Premier League matches. The BBC was left with the highlights. It was a watershed moment for televised sport.

The right to broadcast live Premier League soccer has been offered in periodic auctions occurring every three or four years since 1992.

For the first four of those auctions, Sky retained exclusive rights to broadcast live Premier League soccer on its Sky Sports channels. By the time of the 2004-2007 deal the money paid by Sky to the Premier League had risen to an estimated £1.24bn (€1.34bn).

Rupert Murdoch has described how Sky have used soccer as “a battering ram” to develop and control pay-tv in Britain. Its success has been spectacular. In 1990, Sky was a relatively marginal presence in the English broadcasting market; within a decade it was a hugely powerful media player and this power is now fully established. Essentially, the deal with soccer has been critical to the success of Sky.

Further, the launch of multiple sport, film and other channels allowed Sky drive its revenue from related activities. For example, the launch of its SkyBet service has brought in dramatic profits.

In the process of all this, soccer in England was profoundly changed. The remarkable influx of rights money saw the Premier League redrawn as the wealthiest competition in world soccer.

Sky Sports became central to the hype which attended the birth and rapid development of the Premier League. A new approach to the broadcast of football matches was developed. Multiple camera angles, extended build-ups and review programmes, new graphics and sound effects all served to lend a new gravitas to the game — even when the matches themselves were irredeemably poor.

It proved the perfect marriage: A pay-tv company looking for content and a sport which coveted huge sums of money.

This is a pact which is not without significant cost, of course. Perhaps the most potent aspect of pay-tv channels is that, once they secure broadcasting rights to a sport, that sport finds it almost impossible to determine its own future.

Pay-tv money re-orders sports organisation to such an extent that it becomes inconceivable to imagine life without it.

It then begins an issue as to who really holds the true power in a sport.

And more to the point, pay-tv companies must find the money to pay for these deals and to generate profit for their shareholders. To do this, they extract income from the die-hard supporters of sports who must now pay a subscription in order to watch matches on television.

Or not — as all those who wished to see Shane Lowry win the Open Championship or Mayo beat Donegal in the Super 8s will know.

- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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