The end of an era is upon us. The rights to the Champions League have passed ITV by and from the 2018-19 season there will be no free televised screenings of the world’s premier footballing competition.
After an aggressive bidding war, BT Sport managed to gobble up the rights for £1.2 billion until 2021. BT also took ITV’s rights to broadcast a weekly highlight show, which means that for the first time there will be no Match of the Day equivalent for European games.
BT are claiming they will make some content free on social media and online, however, this is still a watershed moment for European football in the UK, which for as long as most can remember, has always been represented on ITV.
With BT spending so much to obtain the TV rites it wasn’t surprising when they announced further price hikes in January, which of course adversely impact the viewer, despite the claim that they can now watch two Champions League games a night.
This £1.2 billion deal follows on from the historic £5.14 billion deal that Sky and BT reached for the rights to the Premier League two years ago. The money involved in that deal was extraordinary, but domestically it has been met with a decline in viewing figures and a reduction in subscriptions.
Part of the reason for the falling audiences is that the rising costs of buying the TV rights is being passed on to the consumer. At the same time, it is now easier than ever to illegally stream games online and circumvent the excessive costs of watching football.
Are people being put off by the increasingly monied nature of Premier League and British football more broadly? Domestically the answer has to be yes. Even if we look at individual clubs there is a general feeling that domestic (dare I say “native”) fans are being ignored in order to increase global audiences.
Football clubs are no longer reliant on a loyal core of fans. Manchester United, for instance, famously boasted about having 629 million global fans. In this regard football is arguably beyond being controlled by the market. Even if local fans switched off, the appeal abroad is such that it could continue on regardless.
Clubs like United could charge £200 a ticket and probably still sell out most weeks because of their global brand. The unfortunate reality of the once beautiful game is that now money trumps all else. Clubs talk about balancing the books, not about winning (much to the frustration of Arsenal fans – although their net spending and wage bill are higher than many care to admit whilst refusing to pay the London living wage).
When the record Premier League TV rights deal was first brokered, Conservative Party MP and Sports Minister Helen Grant waxed lyrical about the deal describing it as a “great British success story.’’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is more accurately described as a great British tragedy and so is the new BT sports deal.
Lots of money has been made but as a result ticket prices having risen by 1000 per cent in the last twenty years. Large chunks of people can no longer afford to support their local clubs. People either don’t go, or go and can’t really afford it, spending their money to often watch mediocre football on a cold rainy day in Stoke.
Football offers an interesting microcosm into the contradictory nature of capitalism and it’s ability to co-opt popular culture for its own means. What we now call football is a lot more about narrative, the spectacle and money, then it is about football.
Fans even argue with each other about which club is the most sustainable, but in truth none of them really are. Even Barcelona famously pretend to be a “pure” club with no sponsor and a rich history that flies in the face of their current deal with Nike and the Qatar Foundation.
It’s of course easy to hark back to a golden era of British football that was untainted by the grips of globalisation and capitalism, but this too would be at best revisionist. Football in Britain has always been in bed with money – albeit to a lesser extent that today.
For instance Trevor Francis became the first million pound player in the world when he moved from Birmingham to Nottingham Forest in the 1979-80 season.
The main problem is that football could be so much better. One billion people watch the Champions League final so we cannot overstate the cultural significance of 22 people kicking a ball around a pitch. It is massive. But too often players and clubs recreate societal oppression, rather than being even remotely progressive.
Money often trumps what is right or wrong – best shown when a player is racist (a case in point has been the media white-washing of Jamie Vardy). Football could and should set the pace, yet it so often lags behind.
What is the solution? Well a boycott sounds good in theory but unfortunately because of the global support, as noted before, a lot of clubs could still sell out and for the bigger clubs the match day revenue is quite minor compared to commercial deals and TV revenue that underpins their projects.
In the end, the solutions don’t lie within football itself but require a broader critique of capitalism and its contradictions. In the short term perhaps we should all boycott Sky and BT and get the streaming going en masse.