Former Sky Sports managing director, Vic Wakeling, television broadcasting and football pioneer.
Grey-haired, softly spoken and slightly-built, Vic Wakeling gave no indication, when you first met him, that here was the man who played a bigger part than any other individual in the past quarter of a century in transforming not one but two industries.
Vic, who passed away last week at the age of 73, was a modest Geordie with a passion for sport and television journalism, and combined the two to spectacular effect as the driving force behind Sky Sports, from its launch in the early 1990s.
He revolutionised sports TV coverage, paved the way for the Premier League’s global domination, and began the process of transforming the sporting landscape.
It was not just about Premier League football with Vic, although that was how we first met a decade after he helped Sky win the inaugural TV rights deal, which proved to be a game-changer for both the broadcaster and the Premier League.
I was the incoming chairman of the Football Writers’ Association and he was arguably the most powerful man in British sport, though you would not know that from his demeanour.
Modest, friendly and with a devastatingly dry wit, he was one of the first people I encountered when I joined a panel of the great and good of football who would meet three or four times a season to vote for the players and managers of the month, and occasionally go on short trips in Europe.
Vic welcomed me in with a warm smile and a handshake, and I soon realised not only could he hold his own in conversation with former international footballers and managers, he was helping to fund their new careers as pundits, presenters or co- commentators.
We got on straightaway because he loved sport and he loved journalism, as someone who had literally gone from a paper round one day to office boy on the local newspaper the next.
Chris Haynes, who worked closely with Vic as head of PR for Sky Sports for many years, said: “Vic was doing his paper round and noticed a job advert in the Blaydon Courier. He cycled the six miles to their offices immediately and started as a junior reporter the next day. That summed up Vic for me.”
His determination to get things done helped Wakeling shake up not just sports television but the sports themselves. And it was not just football. Neville Smith, now head of Rugby League at Sky, said Wakeling admired the Australian ‘can-do’ attitude.
“Vic and I met in 1989 at Champion TV, which became BSB, and we were waiting for the satellite to go up. We weren’t making a lot of television so we spent time in the pub, where you get to know a lot about people. Soon after the satellite went up, BSB merged with Sky, and he became head of football.
“Even though I was a junior assistant producer and he was an executive, we hit it off. He always took an interest because he loved rugby league and he loved Australia, from his time working out there on secondment. He had the same attitude as us Aussies, and an absolute determination to get the job done.”
Like Alex Ferguson and other great managers, Wakeling was a workaholic, always first into the office and regularly the last to leave. “Vic unlocked the office doors in the morning, and he turned off the lights at night,” added Smith.
His only indulgence was chain-smoking, a habit which was eventually to shorten his life. After his family, his dedication was to his job.
It has been well- documented how he single-mindedly drove the negotiations that led English football clubs to untold riches, using the contacts and expertise from his previous career as a top Fleet Street editor to ensure Sky were the first broadcasters to showcase the new Premier League.
Vic grew up with the old sports editor’s maxim only three sports count in newspaper coverage – ‘football, football and football.’
But he also understood there was more to this sporting life, and the record-breaking deals he did in football allowed him to grow other sports under the Sky umbrella.
“Every time he signed a new Premier League deal, I’d go up to him and shake his hand because we all knew it gave us the platform to do what we wanted to do. We all felt if it had not been for Vic, we would not be doing what we were doing, even now,” added Smith.
“It was his contacts and advice that helped Sky get the original Premier League deal and everything followed from there. He was pivotal in setting up Super League rugby, effectively brokering the deal and persuading the game to switch to a summer season.”
The innovations did not stop there. Sky’s football coverage was a revelation. Richard Scudamore, another regular at our manager of the month lunches, said: “The whole way the game was portrayed was innovative, exciting, visual. The graphics, the colour, the stats – all the things we now take for granted started under Vic.”
He used to host a pre-season lunch for us sports journalists, outlining Sky’s new innovations each year, holding court for three consecutive days, first with the sports editors, then daily newspapers and then the Sunday paper sports correspondents. The lunches would go on into long evenings, but Vic would be there, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, talking football. His stamina was incredible.
He started complimentary coverage, too, with the website launched in 1998 now one of the biggest sports sites in the world, and before that, the first round-the-clock sports news channel.
Matt Lorenzo was one of the first Sky Sports News presenters: “The first time I came across Vic he offered me a job but I turned him down, and when he came over to run BSkyB after they merged, I thought he might hold it against me.
“But Vic was not a man to hold a grudge – quite the opposite. He became a mentor, not just to me but to so many of the younger guys who worked under him. He was a classic northerner – hard but fair. He had a modest office with dozens of screens showing all Sky’s output, but if you made a mistake he’d spot it.
“I was once reading a short news story about American football and there was a name I couldn’t get my tongue round, even after three goes, so I said ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter.’ Within seconds a note from Vic popped up on my screen saying: ‘American football may be one of the 400 sports about which you know nothing but that is not a reason to joke about it.’ But it was soon forgotten.
“When we met up after work for a beer, we’d just talk football, and invariably he’d catch you out. He just knew so much about the game, borne out of a real passion. And of course our shared background in local newspapers helped. Vic always compared Sky Sports to a newspaper, making sure it was about getting the facts right, telling the story, giving people want they wanted. Newspapers were his first love and that shone through in the way he built Sky Sports, breaking stories and leading the news agenda.”
Neville Smith has similar recollections: “You couldn’t get away with anything. If you messed up he’d let you know, but if you did a good job he’d tell you. And he had a dry sense of humour.
“Unfortunately, my parking spot was right under his office window and he knew I had a golf club membership. If ever I was leaving early, even for a genuine reason, the phone would go and he’d roar: ‘Fore!’ and laugh down the line. He loved winding me up.”
Some saw him as a father figure to the young guns at Sky, but Smith disagrees: “No, he was more like your favourite uncle. I was on the verge of leaving once, having accepted a job back in Australia, and he just said: ‘Take as much time as you need to think it over.’
“I changed my mind and when I came back he threw his arms around me, said well done and then pushed me out of the door and told me to get on with it.”
The pair kept in touch until Vic’s untimely death. “Even after he retired, we’d meet once or twice a year for meals with our wives, sometimes in Australia. He’d email during a game to say how much he was enjoying it or the production. That never stopped, even up to a couple of weeks before he died.”
Smith believes Wakeling was a one-off. “Without a shadow of a doubt he was the man for his time. He built an amazing sports club.”
I remember the modest man who built an incredible empire that changed our lives.
It was David Hill who was widely credited as having the vision that persuade his fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch to invest in Sky Sports.
But as Matt Lorenzo said, “Hilly was the visionary, but Vic was the master builder.”
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