Free-to-air football cannot be forever but it is a chance to restore some community

Football needs no extra boost into the mainstream but under lockdown there is a strong argument to give everyone the chance to watch it

Friday, 22nd May 2020, 6:00 am

Updated Friday, 22nd May 2020, 9:00 am
Manchester United are confident that their strong brand and fanbase will ensure long-term security (Photo: Getty)

The 2019 Boat Race, televised live on BBC One, provoked a wave of predictable criticism from unsurprising places. For those predisposed to get frothy-mouthed about the flaws of the nation’s one publicly funded broadcaster, we’re talking Christmas Day levels of impatient anticipation. A contest between two groups of comparatively narrow elites who simultaneously fail to capture the imagination of the masse…look, just draw your own political cartoon now and plough on to the second paragraph.

Viewing figures were down, interest was plunging and the recruitment by the BBC of James Cracknell was judged to be a flop. When your ‘man of the people’ pundit is an Oxbridge alumni, Daily Telegraph columnist and former Conservative candidate, the theory that rowing was failing to capture the sporting zeitgeist does begin to carry a little weight.

So what was the dismal peak audience of this outmoded, elitist, archaic minority river jaunt? 4.8 million, roughly the same as the highest reported UK television audience for a Premier League match, April 2012’s near-title-deciding Manchester derby. Inside the bubble – Twitter, friendship groups, journalists and writers – it’s easy to assume that everyone is watching the Premier League live. The reality is markedly different.

i’s fantasy football tips newsletter: get ahead

i’s fantasy football tips newsletter: get ahead

Of course the direct comparison doesn’t stand up. Nor does the fact that Vincent Kompany’s late winner was watched by 1.5m fewer people than that week’s Antiques Roadshow episode from Lulworth Castle. In fairness, that was the first half of a two-parter, so perhaps Fiona Bruce left us all on a 10th-century chest-related cliffhanger. Subscription services, by their very nature, attract lower audiences than free-to-air channels. Always have, always will.

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But then that’s precisely the point. For all the hype, bright lights and perma-advertising of subscription services, free-to-air sport drives interest like nothing else. In the cases of the FA Cup final, Wimbledon, World Snooker Championship and the Grand National, television literally carried the game up above its head for all to see. All four existed before broadcasting, but through public service television and radio they became recognisable moments in the nation’s consciousness. As Paddy Scannell wrote in his excellent book Culture and Power: ‘Broadcasting created, in effect, a new national calendar of public events’.

This week, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden threatened to add to that calendar. Dowden repeated his notion that the Premier League’s Project Restart may include provisions for free-to-air matches for the first time. They would not replace Sky and BT Sport matches but complement them, perhaps in the Saturday 3pm blackout slot that will be dropped until spectatorship normality finally returns. The most mainstream sporting product in the world could be about to go, well…mainstream.

If the lack of precedent makes audience numbers impossible to predict exactly, we can have a good go. The Women’s World Cup semi-final between England and USA was the fourth most-watched TV event of last year (8.9m) despite almost as many bores and boors telling anyone stupid enough to listen that nobody cared. Match of the Day is regularly watched by more than double the number of people who take in that weekend’s biggest televised top-flight game. Last week’s Bundesliga programme was watched by record numbers in Germany. Live Premier League football would surely do the same in the UK.

If it’s undeniable that free-to-air broadcasting can propel a sport’s cultural reach, the opposite is surely also true. The Premier League hyperama hardly needs a manufactured boost to its global marketing capacity, but there are direct consequences of the majority of the UK audience largely missing out on live action. This is a class issue too: subscriptions take up vast swathes of disposable income and are a non-essential product. If ticket prices have alienated a large section of the game’s working-class support in stadia, pay TV has done the same in our homes. Free-to-air broadcasters are uniquely placed to maximise the social value of sport in a way subscription models rarely can.

We see the absence of live sport in existing public service broadcasting too, helping to fuel the vast rise – and popularity – of ‘competition TV’. Four of the top five most-watched programmes in 2016 were The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent. This is a climate in which baking a Victoria sponge is presented as a form of sporting contest. We clamour after competition, but have been forced to change its parameters.

The public are desperate to consume competitive TV – in any form (Photo: Bake Off)

Existing broadcasters – and therefore the clubs too – may feel a little itchy about this prospect. Sky and BT Sport might pay £10m per match, as the oft-repeated figure states, but part of that fee is for the guarantee of exclusivity. Put the Premier League on terrestrial television, even temporarily, and the value of subscription models drop. That may cause those subscription broadcasters to demand a rebate on their contracts that will send club executives scurrying for meetings with their accountants, and the Premier League might well be heading for its own period of comparative austerity.

Those complications ultimately make free-to-air league football unsustainable. The Premier League’s success – and global reach – is funded by inflated broadcasting contracts that cannot be replicated by a free-to-air model. Any long-term continuation would devalue those contracts and thus the spending power of the clubs. Players, managers and owners would seek more financially inviting climes. That might still strike as a persuasive argument for moral cleansing, but it has little base in any likely future reality.

The Premier League’s new chief executive Richard Masters faces some difficult decisions (Photo: Getty)

But that unsustainability only makes any potential free-to-air measures in Project Restart more worthy of celebration. Through its mass reach and influence, public service broadcasting has a unique capacity to enrich people’s lives and to inspire; the Women’s World Cup in 2019 drove a rise of 850,000 new participants alone. Sport ticks every televisual box: drama, soap opera, human nature, relatively cheap production costs, an existing, loyal fanbase and the overwhelming power of immediacy. It simultaneously acts as a distraction from reality while using threads of that reality as its storylines.

The notion of football lifting the spirits of the nation is grossly misappropriated, but the power of universality in its return cannot be overstated. The silver linings to this Covid-19 crisis are thin and thin on the ground – for football and for society – but a fiesta of domestic action for us all to gorge upon might just be one. Football’s restitution will be televised; the only question is how many will be able to watch it.

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