BY MARTIN CLOAKE
Tranmere Rovers or Southport, will play, Tottenham Hotspur. It’s the kind of draw that makes the FA Cup third round special. League Two or National League North against a Premier League giant. At the smaller ground. All the potential for an upset, new territory for both sets of fans, made perfect for a Saturday afternoon at 3pm.
And that’s where the picture fractures. Because this tie won’t take place at Saturday 3pm. It will take place at 7.45pm on a Friday night. At the end of the first week back to work after the Christmas and New Year holidays. Public transport there and back is out if you’re coming from the south. And Spurs fans will have travelled to Cardiff and back just three days before for a 5.30pm kick-off. On a Bank Holiday.
If ever there was proof that the TV tail is wagging the football dog, it’s here. Fixtures are pulled around, often at late notice, and scheduled at times that make attending the game at best a major challenge for many fans. Of course, the broadcasters give it all the old blarney about being all about the fans, oh the atmosphere, oh the wonderful passion. But actions speak louder than words and the reality is they don’t care.
They don’t care about the fans, they don’t even care about the ‘product’, beyond having something to fill the schedules until the next big thing comes along. And so what could be something special becomes just another match on the telly, the permanent wallpaper of modern life, playing in the background almost non-stop and in doing so embracing ordinariness. Remember when a game on TV used to be a real occasion? Me neither. As the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch put it “Thousands and thousands of hours of football, each more climactic than the last! Constant, dizzying, twenty-four hour, year-long, endless football! Every kick of it massively mattering to someone, presumably. Watch it all, all here, all the time, forever, it will never stop, the football is officially going on forever!”
Too much of a good thing? We’re getting too much of it whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And a lot is indifferent. It takes something special to make dedicated fans question whether they actually care anymore, but the combined geniuses of the football and TV worlds are making real progress at completely alienating their core audience.
This is the bit where you say, ‘ah, but the actual fans who go to matches aren’t the core audience. It’s those viewing at home.’ And you’d be right. But also wrong. Because the attraction for the audience at home is partly the audience at the game. They help create the atmosphere that makes the ‘product’ better than it would be if it was just 22 people kicking a ball around in a field. Broadcasters wouldn’t pay millions for that. For all that he was presented as the villain of the piece, Richard Scudamore at least understood that. It’s one of the reasons why there’s a price cap of £30 on away tickets in the Premier League (Scudamore also recognised the collective strength of a 20-club league selling a product, holding out against those who wanted to go it alone because there was more in it for them. Keep an eye on that one now he’s gone).
And now it’s the bit where you say: ‘This moaning is all very well, but he who pays the piper calls the tune’. And you’d be right again. Broadcasters aren’t going to give football vast acreages of cash and then not want some say in when they show the games. In fact, at the price they pay, they want absolute carte blanche to maximise their audiences. And you know what? Most of us get that.
For the past two years, a number of fan reps from the Premier League clubs have been trying to establish a dialogue with the broadcasters and the football authorities in order to get some consideration of fans taken on board when fixtures are compiled. From the off, fan reps were at pains to confirm that we understood the broadcasters needed to maximise their audiences because they’d paid the money, and that it wasn’t always possible to ensure every game at a time outside Saturday 3pm would be convenient for every fan. In the case of geographical outliers such as Newcastle United, for example, it’s quite a challenge avoiding any trips from one end of the country to another of an evening. But what we wanted was a bit of balance.
It’s not a particularly militant position. And that’s because we don’t have much to work with. The clubs signed up to the deal. It’s one of the many big failures of football governance that those who produce a premium product have sold it with no real influence over how it’s used. The closest example I can think of to illustrate why this is a bad idea is Burberry – the once premium brand that allowed its distinctive look to be plastered all over everything, only to find it lost all value. (I’m not ruling out a Burberry third kit for this tie).
That failure of the game’s governing body to protect the integrity of a product that is so valuable broadcasters are prepared to pay billions for it is one of the many glaring failures of governance in the game, but here we’ve given up expecting much. The FA abrogated its role as the game’s governing body years ago. But what we find in football is that it’s hard to find anyone who is responsible for anything – apart from success, of course.
When fan reps look for where to challenge decisions such as this, we embark on a trip around the houses. The clubs shrug and say they sympathise but it’s not their call, the broadcasters decide. The broadcasters shrug and say the clubs signed the deal. The bodies that allegedly govern say they can’t challenge the terms of a free market deal between the clubs and the broadcasters. And if the heat gets turned up they all say the timing of the fixture is really down to the police. The police shrug and say they only advise, they don’t decide. And if things get really protracted people get inventive and blame the local authority or the unions.
In football, no one is responsible for making any decisions that anyone disagrees with. Best to view football decisions as acts of God, that no one can influence. Or, better still, blame the fans. The advantage of blaming the fans is that plenty of other fans are prepared to blame the fans too. That’s either based on some gormless application of club rivalry, or the apparently more sophisticated position of blaming fans for participating in their own exploitation. The two lines most often deployed here are “fans should boycott games” or “we should be more like the fans in Germany”.
Both might well be true, but simply reeling the line out is rather like those lists of objectives in the ‘where we stand’ columns of left-wing newspapers – expositions of destination without addressing how to make the journey there. Boycotting games is the ultimate sanction, because fans define themselves by their attendance at games. At clubs where successful boycotts have happened it’s taken huge levels of organisation, threats to the clubs very existence, and the willingness to run the gauntlet of opposition from your fellow fans. And simply saying ‘we should be more like Germany’ disregards the deep-seated effects of over 70 years of embedded progressive social democracy. The culture is different and it can’t be lifted up and placed elsewhere.
None of this is to say fans in the UK will not get more organised. But it will develop organically and pointing out we’re not like others does little apart from making those doing the pointing feel better. There has been some small progress in the Premier League. Sky has proved willing at least to discuss and consider the effect of game scheduling on fans, as has the Premier League. BT hasn’t even responded to the invitation to talk.
What all this means is that when fans ask their reps “what’s the point of what you’re doing?” we find it harder to answer. Pragmatism needs nurturing, not using as a chance to play people for fools. Longer term, allowing TV to play fast and loose with football cannot end well. I’m not for a moment arguing that the TV bubble is about to burst. Media companies crave content and football is some of the stickiest content you can get. But eventually, and especially at the rate of gorging that is going on right now, football will become less of a premium product. TV companies, whose role is not to nurture the game but to maximise audiences, will find other products. And that will leave the game in a bit of a spot.
That’s because it has come to rely totally on the money from TV, not see it as a welcome extra. Clubs now factor in the income from TV to their annual budgets. We found that out when asking for money from the TV deal to be put aside in a central pot to provide funds for fans to travel to games at inconvenient times, or to compensate them for late changes. That money, we were told, is already accounted for and there is no central pot. Apart, of course, from the one that exists to fund severance packages for chief executives.
Of course, if and when TV does move on to the next big thing, those currently in temporary charge of football and football clubs will have moved on having trousered the cash and used their experience of doing so to help administer the next big cash-trousering scheme. Don’t worry about the clubs. Enough fans will be left to pass the hat round and save them from whatever mess they’ve been left in, bring them back to health and ready them for the next big shot to step in. If ever an example of socialising loss and privatising profit was needed, it doesn’t come much clearer than in football.
As I finished writing this, the news of the death of the great Pete Shelley came through. It seems somehow apposite to close this by asking Have You Ever Fallen In Love With Something You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With?
MARTIN CLOAKE - @MartinCloake