Sky's the limit as fans are dished out football overdose
Satellite broadcaster has transformed the way sport is watched
It tends to be forgotten sometimes that when the satellite dishes started going up and the Premier League jumped into bed with BSkyB there was only one member of the established Big Five at the time who put a tick against the relevant box when the television proposals came to a vote.
Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton all opposed what the pre-knighted Alex Ferguson called a "plain and simple rip-off". People often accuse the big clubs of being greedy and running football for their own needs but it was generally the smaller clubs who voted in that deal, aiming for a slice of the television money.
The exception was Tottenham and their chairman, Alan Sugar, will probably just have to live with the scepticism given that he ran Amstrad, the company that supplied the dishes. "The Amstrad connection worries me," Ferguson volunteered after the deal was cut. "There cannot be a supporter who does not view Tottenham's decision to vote for the Sky deal with a lot of suspicion."
Ferguson dedicates an entire chapter to his various grievances, calling it 'Premier Nonsense', in one of his early books, Alex Ferguson: 6 Years at United, and if you still like following football the old-fashioned way and dedicating your weekends around travelling to matches, you might appreciate the gist of what he says.
"How much can you ask of supporters?" Ferguson says, noting the disruption of the new Monday-night slots and lamenting the way Sky were "bleeding the public dry" by requiring viewers to wire up dishes and fund monthly subscriptions. "It would hardly behove the manager of a leading club to suggest that people both in and out of the game have been conned, but I can well understand the ordinary fan in the street wondering," he writes. "How the football people negotiating the contract did not have the savvy to know that once the agreement was signed the Sky people would fleece the fans, I will never know."
Almost a quarter of a century on, English football is so entwined with Sky it can feel almost like a trick of the imagination to think that a club with United's power could initially be so hostile. Sky, according to Ferguson, were in danger of showing too many matches at too many inconvenient times, making it virtually impossible for some fans to get to games, and forcing everyone else to pay through the nose. "I can see conflict ahead," he predicts. "I believe the game may come to rue the day we sold out to satellite television."
As it has turned out, Ferguson was mistaken to think crowds would dramatically recede but it is clear, just as he suspected, that many old-time football fans have been driven away and I know Jose Mourinho thinks English football is straying dangerously close to saturation point. "In many countries, Portugal for example, people don't go to football any more," Mourinho told me. "They stay at home and this [television] is why. Why would a Portuguese man pay €50 for a ticket when it might be a shit game and he can stay at home instead to watch football on television? You, in England, wouldn't eat roast beef every day, so why have football every day? It's too much."
And the monster is getting bigger. Next season the Premier League adds Friday night games to the equation and, once again, there is the sense that television is God. It's not just Sky either. BT Sport recently switched Newcastle's game at Bournemouth, a 700-mile round trip, to a 12.45pm kick-off. The BBC have moved Liverpool's FA Cup tie at Exeter to Friday night, without a second thought apparently for the fans who will be travelling from Merseyside and there are numerous other examples of what Spirit of Shankly, a Liverpool fans' group, described recently as "the contempt and lack of regard with which they hold football supporters".
It is astounding how often it happens - Middlesbrough to Brighton for a 12.30pm Sky kick-off being another example and it is tempting sometimes to wonder whether the TV companies do it deliberately, if it means more people watching on the box.
On that basis, many supporters can probably understand Leeds' stance when Sky's camera crews turned up to get everything in place for the televised game against Derby last Tuesday only to find the doors padlocked. Leeds, to put it bluntly, are sick of the way their games have been Sky-jacked this season. It needed the personal intervention of Shaun Harvey, chief executive of the Football League (and formerly Leeds), to persuade his old club to open up but the stand-off went on so long Sky had stopped promoting the game as live, fearing their cameras would not be allowed in.
That dispute might have something to do with the fact Leeds's owner, Massimo Cellino, rarely misses a trick to take on the league. Cellino currently holds the baton in a long relay race of boardroom buffoonery at Elland Road. Yet Leeds do have a genuine grievance given their fixture at Nottingham Forest was moved back a day for Sky to show it live, meaning they had two days to prepare for a Derby side who look a good bet for promotion and had an extra 24 hours to recuperate. Whatever your view on Leeds, Cellino or Steve Evans, it cannot be fair that one side is given three days' rest and another two.
The flip side is that fans cannot have it both ways. The transfer window opened on Friday and we all know how the sport works itself into a desperate tizz at this time of year. Many of the supporters demanding high-end transfers and vast expenditure will presumably be the same people who complain that television has too much power. Yet the two go hand in hand when it is largely because of television that there is so much money swilling around.
The first deal in 1992 was considered enormous at the time, at £304m, whereas the one that starts next season comes in at £5.136bn, working out at an average of £10.2m a game for Sky and £7.6m for BT. It's mind-boggling stuff.
In 2014, the annual Deloitte Football Money League had eight Premier League clubs in the top 30 richest in the world. When the new deal kicks in, all 20 of England's top-division clubs will be among that list. Bournemouth could feasibly be in, and Inter out. The last data had Burnley as bigger economically than Ajax, four-times winners of the European Cup and next season the team that finishes bottom of the Premier League will receive £99.5m in television revenue. Bayern Munich, to put into context, took in £90.1m from broadcasting revenue, according to Deloitte's 2015 list, and Paris Saint-Germain £69.7m.
Against that backdrop, it is easier to understand why television executives think they can arrange games in a way that suits them rather than the clubs or the people in the stands. Sky, in particular, give a slick product and if they wanted to be mischievous they could also point out Ferguson did not seem so bothered when the Glazer family started driving up prices at Old Trafford and, speaking of rip-offs, making season-ticket holders pay for cup ties they might not want to attend.
It is just a shame that the television companies cannot be a little more considerate sometimes and that none of the people running the game, at the Football League and Premier League headquarters, ever seem to have the gumption to speak up on behalf of the common football fan. It wouldn't take much and that it never happens does leave the impression sometimes that they really do not care.
Sunday Indo Sport