Monday 16 September 2019

Fans forgotten as TV's money now runs the Premier League

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez

Alan Tyers

Where there is mention of football, money is never far behind. Even the briefest scan through the football pages of a paper or website gives plenty of cause to feel uneasy about the Premier League.

For instance: Manchester United will be paying £175,000 (€193,000) a week this season for the white elephant of their nightmares, Alexis Sanchez, now on loan at Inter Milan, not to play for them.

Fifteen miles up the M60 from Old Trafford, Bury were thrown out of the English Football League; in the aftermath, some Premier League clubs made half-hearted murmurs about maybe possibly offering a few more crumbs to teams further down the pyramid.

At Newcastle United, beloved former players such as Rob Lee are urging fans to lay off Steve Bruce and focus their ire instead on the man Lee calls "the real villain", the owner Mike Ashley.

Regrettable though he and Sports Direct may be, Ashley is far from being the only club owner in the division whose background and methods demand more scrutiny than they get: the morality or otherwise of Abu Dhabi's so-called sportswashing via Manchester City being the highest profile example, but far from the only one.

The common thread in those four stories is money and, or so a book out this week argues, specifically the money that comes into the Premier League from subscription television.

'Can We Have Our Football Back? How the Premier League Is Ruining Football And What We Can Do About It', by John Nicholson, is an intriguing and thoughtful attempt to crystallise a sense that many people have about how the Premier League is contested, marketed and consumed in 2019. And that sense is that something is rotten.

Nicholson argues that the money Sky pumped into the Premier League has corrupted and co-opted the sport in England.

He writes: "Since 1992, those who run the Premier League have tried to sell something to us that we were once the most important part of, to the point where we are now bit-part players in their drama.

"They have taken television from being a guest at football to football being a guest on television."

This book posits that the Premier League has pulled off a mind game regarding its television reach.

With barely a million watching many matches in the UK on what we once called satellite TV, Nicholson, speaking to broadcasters, owners, TV executives and former players including Mark Chapman, Chris Sutton, Clive Tyldesley and Simon Jordan, argues that the Premier League has conflated brand awareness with popularity and that television has been allowed to take ownership of the people's game far beyond what would be justified given the actual number of paying punters.

Limitless

Top-flight football club owners have been only too happy to receive the seemingly limitless free money from the TV rights deals, while clubs get themselves into financial messes trying to get their snouts in the trough.

And it is the fan who has suffered: alienated from the players on their obscene salaries, treated as a cash cow, and via paid-TV, priced out of even watching famous clubs play the national sport live.

Nicholson argues that fans should boycott pay-walled televised football and demand that the UK government make league football available for free on the BBC and ITV, believing that the sport is a public good, and also good for the public. He also calls for salary caps for players and an end to gambling advertising, citing its corrosive effects on the mental health of the gamblers.

Nicholson, whom I have known for nearly 20 years as a writer on the Football365 website, is an unusual, powerful writer whose gifts are for the polemic and the provocative. There will be plenty who dismiss his book as a pipe-dream or as an irrelevance compared to the realpolitik of big money and large institutions.

But I think it sits rather neatly in the overarching debate of our time: who gets to control, and who has to sit and take what they are given?

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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