As I sat in my room watching the Europa League final between Liverpool and Sevilla on the television through YouTube on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but feel BT Sport were commencing a desperate plea for attention. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the game and the experience of watching it through an innovative live streaming service that YouTube now provides, but there was a distinct abnormality about it all. The commentators (pointing out the obvious throughout the game as per usual) were acting no differently than they would for any other BT Sport televised game, the pundits (totally Liverpool-biased in Michael Owen and Steve McManaman) were nothing out of the ordinary, but there was an aura of a slight façade. It all seemed to be an audition to potential new customers, which in the end is all that BT Sport, and BT above them, care about, the income from intrigued (Tyler) onlookers. They only came up with the idea to try and offset their poor ratings for their new European football coverage monopoly from the rest of the season, and they were quite open about that fact when they released a statement last week saying they had agreed an ‘exciting’ deal with the YouTube bigwigs. The final on Wednesday, coupled with the Champions League next Saturday (28th) might salvage some success for BT from this season, but they will realise that their future might not lie on our TV’s, but across all platforms.
But this kerfuffle about the rights to platform football to the nation is not all about BT Sport, the story also encompasses BBC, ITV, Sky Sports, Channel 5, ESPN, in fact most major broadcasters in the whole of the UK. I am a passionate supporter of the BBC and all free-to-air television, call me a traditionalist, but I am opposed to multi-national companies swooping in and waging their war against the establishment. There is something very self-centered about Rupert Murdoch and Sir Michael Rake (chairman of BT) widening their business empires and outpricing the people’s broadcasters in BBC and ITV to win the rights to show world-class, unparalleled, 24/7 sport. What they are doing is lining their vast, velvet pockets with even more cold, hard cash and enticing the viewers into buying into the dream of exclusivity and luxury, the Sky and BT visions. It is the ultimate capitalist goal, to dominate your field in such a way. Adam Smith (not the Bournemouth player, the founding father of modern day capitalism) would be smiling down on magnates like Murdoch with his single-minded, cold-blooded mind-set, but I don’t agree with that. I don’t think we should buy in to what Murdoch and others promote. I don’t think he even has a heart.
I know what you’re thinking, what I am about to say doesn’t have much to do with football, but I have to say it really does. In the modern day, football is a business in which the richest survive and the small are crushed without a second glance from those at the top. You know the phrase go hard or go home? Well that is the current mentality in football, no matter where you are in the world. In this business, you have to make friends with those guys with deep pockets, even if you work for the Premier League (or FIFA, but let’s not talk about that again), if you want to be rewarded with your own pay package at the end of the week. In its current state, the people involved in football have to be callous to survive. But it doesn’t have to be that way; things could be run with compassion and respect.
The thing is, the longer we let money rule the game, the more ground Sky and BT will steal from BBC and ITV and the more top-level live sport will be lost to channels you have to pay to access. The very idea of that kind of television to be is just disgusting, it’s like in-game purchases in the thousands of apps you can get for ‘free’ on your phone, nobody likes them but plenty are sucked in by the temptation. BT and Sky profit from the desperation of many to watch live sport, but they are two of the most famous companies in terms of poor customer service. So how does this work? Well, even though BT have conquered the telecommunications and Wi-Fi markets (butchering the customers’ needs by ignoring the point and putting them hold over the phone, and taking weeks to even install basic cables for rural areas) they still want more. To get more, they have used their (somehow) respected brand to get a foothold in television, then just splashing the billions they have reaped over the past few decades on shiny desks, even shinier presenters and ‘Ultra HD’ (whatever that means) cameras to provide the luxury experience expected. But they still somehow manage to f**k this up, marketing their channels as FREE on their posters, television ads and magazine commercials. It’s one thing just to try and say your product is free one small time, but to do it in almost all of your adverts is just a deliberate misleading of the British public. After this FREE message in bold, you might notice there will always be an asterisk which comes with a message in the finest print imaginable at the bottom of the advert that it’s only free after you pay so much for line rental and broadband. After that, you have to pay for the special BT box to plug into your TV, and then an even more magical Sports card to put into the back of the box to start it up. Even following that, you have to pay close £50 every month to keep all of this technology in your house. From when you start the process, there is little or no escape, as you are subconsciously programmed into following the steps to becoming BT’s newest favourite customer, or cash cow, which they for some reason don’t like to refer to you as. If you want to jump off the bandwagon, good luck with that as their office staff will only keep going about the whole disembarking process in such a roundabout and confusing way that you will either go crazy or give up altogether. How this company is one of the richest in the UK I will never know.
But BT is only a tiddler in its construction compared to the colossal squid (look it up) that is Sky, who are the kingpins of the paid TV market. They not only hire the biggest names in sport they can pay into representing them, but they also have the most innovative styling, filmography and planning you will ever see in sport. It’s all thanks to Rupert Murdoch, the 85-year-old Australian born multi-billionaire (apparently worth $12.4 billion!!!) who has dominated the transatlantic media markets by founding Sky and Fox and purchasing 21st Century Fox (who own 20th Century Fox now), The Sun and The Times. He’s been married four times (once to a woman 38 years younger than him, and now to a former model who is 26 years his junior) and had six children, who have all been involved in his businesses in one way or another. He has crushed anyone who has stood in his way in business and made billions doing it. Everything he touches turns to gold, simply because he knows all the right people to keep his companies expanding and succeeding. The businesses he owns, by means of character, won’t stop until they’ve engulfed everything in their paths, whether that is the BBC, ITV or even backstabbing BT, its friendly little brother who just wants to share in the success.
What these two massive companies are doing is outbidding our lifelong national broadcasters for every single sporting event that takes their fancy. This could be the Premier League, the Football League, the Champions League, International Cricket, Continental and League Rugby, Basketball, Golf, Tennis and soon Formula One, they don’t really care, they just want the best. All of the biggest sports in the world, all of the biggest choices for the ‘avid sports fan’, all in one place. It’s cold-hearted, it’s ruthless, it’s unethical, but they do what they have to do to make sure they can keep paying off the mortgages for their country mansions, the payments for their Ferraris and the investments into new companies. It’s a hard life for these people, don’t you think? The people that we pay every second we spend watching these programmes, the ones that profit off our endless desire for entertainment, which they are only too happy to provide us with.
But what happens when this goes too far, when we lose all sport from terrestrial television? Well, as distinct a possibility as this seems, if we carry on the same path, it undoubtedly will. It’s mostly down to weak heads in charge of sport, who jump the gun at the very mention of money and television deals, and will therefore hand over the rights to show the games to the highest bidder, providing that is Sky or BT, not Dave from the pub. You shouldn’t be able to believe it, but there are very few people in sport these days who actually have any heart when it comes to these situations. Sometimes they do need to go out of their way to do the right thing for the stakeholders of sport, who are all of us. Most of the time though, they don’t, so we’ve been left with this mess of a TV rights deal, and many other circumstances similar to it. In British sport right now, there is a massive contrast of characters, from Barry Hearn, the legendary sports promoter, who says television deals with the BBC are the best things imaginable for the sport of Snooker, because they gave the sport a life, to Colin Graves, the ECB (English Cricket Board) chairman. Graves said the other day that Live Test Cricket will never return to free-to-air television, having previously been a bastion of terrestrial television until 2005, when it left Channel 4 for Sky. These two differing opinions for me, display the disparity between the heart in sport and the money-making objectives of some. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sport is not, nor should it ever be, a method for making money. Some people realise this, but nowhere near enough put it into practice. We cannot let the parasitic leeches sink their teeth into our love, our sport, and suck all of the human spirit out of it. It is just morally wrong.
But there are some stories of redemption and spirit in our sport. Luckily for British football fans, we are still able to watch the FA Cup on the largest and most famous worldwide broadcaster, the BBC, for free and with top-quality insights. Admittedly, it’s only a shared deal with BT Sport and they only get to show a maximum of two games every couple of months or so, but it is a showpiece deal for the BBC to host the most historic cup competition in all of football. In many ways the FA Cup and the BBC go together very well, both historic, both synonymous with the United Kingdom and both having the very best talent in the world on display for them. Having the FA Cup available on free-to-air television is a massive thing for the tournament and the country, as it allows children nationwide to be inspired and enlightened by the action, giving football the widest possible audience as well. This is massive for the sport, as it demonstrates that it does care about the next generation, and value everyone getting the privilege of feeling the moment and creating the memories without having to stump up about £100 for the day to watch the games in person. I know that when I sit down to watch the FA Cup final today (21st May) I will be grateful for having the possibility to experience the magic of the cup, but I shouldn’t need to feel that way, as I really believe everyone should have the right to watch and live the big moments in sport, that it should value lifelong adoration from everyone possible over cash. Memories and emotions last forever, but money can only last a man (or woman) so long.
The World Cup and European Championships are also beacons of hope for the working man, as these competitions use a fair policy of handing the rights to the largest broadcasters in each country, similar to the Olympics, rather than the highest bidders. This way of doing things ensures that the BBC and ITV will be able to host the biggest worldwide sporting events for decades to come, rather than having to bid astronomical and incomprehensible fees to oust the opposition. These tournaments attract some of the leading viewing figures for entire decades, and it is only right that those broadcasters that have been serving us for generations are trusted to give us the best coverage, rather than those who have bought themselves into the game.
What we need are reforms. Something needs to be changed to aid the causes of the national broadcasters over the capitalist fat cats, before we lose all live sport from our free television. The government need to impose regulations for Sky and BT, to make sure that they never have the ability to wipe out the opposition in their market and protect their own organisation, the people’s organisations, the BBC. It would make things much simpler if there were spending caps on each event, stopping for example Sky and BT spending over £5 billion, that’s right £5 billion, for a few seasons of Premier League football. That’s basically the equivalent of everyone in the world outside China and the USA paying £1 each to buy the rights to watch a few men kick a ball around in the pursuit of winning one trophy for about three years in a row. When you put it like that, it doesn’t really all seem worth it, does it? It is ridiculous how the top 1% of our society live, and they do it all off of our backs, taking our hard earned money and running off with it before they can ever be held to account. We need to stand up to their ploys and cement a real change in our society, rejecting the cut-throat ways of our upper classes and prompting a world-shaking change. I can’t see it actually happening anytime soon, but I do believe that if we come together as a society we can make real change, and I do believe in the power of the people. Call me an optimist, but I feel strongly about this and believe that as a unit we can change the world one step at a time. I want reform, and I will keep campaigning and encouraging others to help force it for the sake of the future.
So, is anything ever going to change? Are we heading down a slippery slope or can we still make amendments to a broken system? Well, it’s in moments like these that we have to take a step back and have a long, hard look at the whole situation. Once we have done this, analysed all issues and understood the ramifications of what we are currently doing, then we can make the reforms necessary. Until the people in the high places have done this, nothing will change for us, more and more live events will slip out of the grasp of terrestrial TV channels. But right now, nobody in these positions is willing or brave enough to challenge the big companies, in fear of going against the social norms of their jobs. But our world was not shaped into the one we see today by those who took their places on boards and turned up for meetings, not adding any input and collecting a paycheque. No, it was formed by the type of people who are confident and thought-provoking enough to encourage others to follow their calls for change. In my view, there aren’t enough of these philosophers, these leaders, these revolutionaries who want, and more importantly are willing to put the effort in, to shake up the face of our world. We need to bring back football to our screens, whether that be on TV, laptops, mobiles or tablets, and we need for it to be free. It should be a top priority for our government to reclaim sport for the little man, the underdog, the 99% of us. If you asked me what the single most powerful thing about sport is, it would be the fact that it can unite people across the globe in a single moment, no matter your background. But how are we supposed to unite if we can’t even access the spectacle? The thing is, we can’t if things continue in the same vein. If these people were real fans of sport, not interested in just themselves, they would hand sport back to the people. If they had a heart, they would hand it back to the people it really belongs to.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!