BT Sport today unveiled Gary Lineker as the co-presenter (along with current anchor Jake Humphrey) of it’s Champions League coverage which commences at the beginning of the upcoming 2015/16 season. This marks a substantial changing of the guard in terms of televised football in the UK, as Sky Sports and ITV have dominated Champions League coverage in recent decades since the competition began in it’s current format in 1992. However, Sky Sports claim that their recent Champions League viewing figures no longer justified the expense incurred to beat BT in the bidding war for the competition’s rights, because “BT paid far in excess” of Sky’s valuation, according to a Sky spokesperson. That price which BT valued the next three season’s coverage of European Football’s Premier competition was £897m – £299m per season.
The acquisition of Lineker – widely respected in the world of football presenters – coupled with pundits like Jose Mourinho, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand suggest that BT are pulling out all the stops to ensure they make the most of their successful bid. BT claims that it is committed to making live football “more accessible and affordable than it has been to date”. Non-BT TV customers will pay £5 per month to access Champions League games, with BT TV customers given free access. Without discussing the relative prices of each BT package available, it is difficult to argue that £5 is unreasonable.
It is likely that the main reason behind Sky’s reluctance to match BT’s bid – other than their apparently declining viewing figures – is that Sky Sports has put all its eggs in one basket. Rupert Murdoch’s British branch paid £4.176bn to retain 126 English Premier League matches per season over the next three years, double the £2.28bn paid for the same number of games in the previous deal. Not only is the number of games the same, the quality hasn’t visibly increased. This increase in value is, of course, due to the competition provided by BT in recent years. The telecommunications giant is gaining on Sky’s live football monopoly with each passing year.
The knock-on effects of this commercialisation are by now well-documented. The English Premier League is the most over-inflated, over-hyped football league anywhere in the world. So often proclaimed the ‘greatest’ by its advocates – who are also declining year-on-year – the Barclays Premier League has become the poisoned symbol of modern football.
The list of implications is the length of your arm. Each season player transfers are more bloated than ever before. 10 years ago Chelsea began the culture of overpaying for players like there was no tomorrow, Manchester City picked up the baton in 2009. Manchester United were historically the club that maintained a sense of decorum in the Premier League era. They began it with a unique group of youth players in 1992 that went on to write themselves in football folklore. They invested astutely, rarely over-indulging considering their vast resources. Wayne Rooney may have been a £30m teenager but he is on the brink of becoming the club’s all-time leading goalscorer – hardly an irresponsible waste of money. Alex Ferguson was evidently a major part of this culture of – for want of a better phrase – doing things the right way. With his departure, and United’s relative decline, we have seen that they are now also fully committed to throwing abhorrent amounts of money at anyone and everyone. £30m for 18 year old left-back Luke Shaw after one promising season at Southampton. £57m for Angel di Maria who has miserably flopped after a promising start. Liverpool, another club with considerable history, is also now spending crazy money for unproven players from just about anywhere in a bid scrape Champions League qualification in order to make the whole charade even mildly sustainable. The speculation over the past season surrounding the likes of Christian Benteke and Saido Berahino further accentuates the lunacy that is now second nature in English football. Benteke, who is undoubtedly a good player, has scored goals on a relatively consistent basis – when free from injury – for Aston Villa, who have struggled at the foot of the Premier League for consecutive seasons now, has a £32m clause in his current contract. £32m for a better-than-decent injury-prone striker from Aston Villa tells its own story. Berahino, who has the pleasure of an added dose of hype because he is English – producing genuinely top-class English footballers is becoming such a rarity natives now pin their every supreme hope on one that might turn out to be above-average – is another perfect example. In January Berahino was linked with a move away from West Brom but not before potential suitors were warned off by a £20m price tag.
The money paid for live television rights is ruining football in this country. I don’t mean ruining it in the ‘it’s not like it was back in my day’ way that your Dad might preach, I mean ruining it to a stage that is absolutely unsustainable. It is pushing ticket prices to levels which, gradually, no person on an average income will be able to afford – given that people’s incomes are the last thing that will grow in the immediate future in the UK. Therefore, it is creating a culture of disconnection between fans and players. Attendances are topped up by tourists and middle-to-upper class supporters, which makes for a depressing lack of vibrancy and noise. With the exception of Crystal Palace – who’s Ultras group has burst onto the scene and added some life to Selhurst Park – what other venue in the English Premier League do you watch and think “Wow, that looks like some atmosphere there!”? None. Old Trafford, the Emirates, the Etihad, Stamford Bridge (the list is endless) are packed full of the type of fan who goes to a football match to try and catch a nice video through their iPad (Old Trafford did actually banned iPads in 2014) or who thinks they’re too good to sing at a football match. The fact I just mentioned four football stadiums and 50% of them have sold their stadium naming rights to multinational airlines tells you all you need to know about the state of football in the UK.
I mean the whole UK too, not just England. My own club, who don’t even play in England, cannot sign a player without the prospect that he’ll use Celtic as a stepping stone to the English Premier League looming in the not to distant background. The same company that pays more than £4bn to televise English football, pays just a fraction of that to show 30 live SPFL matches per season – two EPL matches amount to the value of the whole season of Scottish coverage. To be so geographically close to such concentrated wealth means any wealth Scottish football could once upon a time generate has been entirely suctioned out of it.
This point was underlined earlier this week after Brand Finance published its annual report on the Brand Value of world football’s top 50 clubs (http://brandirectory.com/league_tables/table/top-50-football-club-brands-2015). Celtic are 34th – lagging behind the likes of Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Swansea and Stoke. Clubs who between them have won about 10 major honours and have never played in the Champions League, who’s fanbases added up together probably don’t amount to that of Celtic’s. It’s not only Celtic, of course, other huge football clubs are way behind the EPL’s mid-table regulars on the back of Sky’s reckless inflation. Marseille, Fenerbache, AS Roma, Benfica and Sevilla, to name a few, cannot dream of competing with the aforementioned English clubs on a brand value basis due to the TV money invested in England.
It’s also dangerous for competition. It’s going to evolve to the stage where 17 clubs are nigh-on guaranteed to avoid relegation and the 3 promoted teams will just rotate up and down each year because of the vast discrepancy in resources. The league already has 6 clubs to fit in four Champions League places. No one outside Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and possibly Spurs have a pipe dream of ever making the top four. There was hype around Southampton this season and to a lesser extent, for a shorter period time, West Ham but they couldn’t sustain their form and finished in Europa League positions. Unless a club below the top 6 is taken over by a Man City-like investment group, they will never get to the next level because the margins are creating ceilings for a lot of clubs.
Then there is the impact on grassroots football. It doesn’t matter how much the Premier League or the FA pledge to invest in grassroots. If the country doesn’t have a culture and an established template for developing young footballers then it’s all in vain. There has to be a clear path from youth football to professional football and each stage in between in order that each new generation can see what is required to be successful and knows that it is a realistic target. That presently doesn’t exist. Take Chelsea, for example, who won the league with considerable ease this season. The standard of Chelsea’s youth team is exceptional. Yet with three or four games to spare, only Ruben Loftus-Cheek got any amount of time worthy of note. That’s because there isn’t a culture, a philosophy or a history of developing players. Jose Mourinho promises that this time he will promote a number of Chelsea’s youth team to established first team professionals and we’ll see over the next few years whether he will or not. Until youth development becomes a priority for clubs, it will never materialise. Therein lies the problem, the sole priority for Premier League clubs is immediate survival or success, whatever pays the most. As it stands, one or two a season might break through if they’re lucky – Harry Kane, for example – the majority of the rest will end up trying to grind out a career in League One.
So how bad will it have to get before we come together and stop a phenomenon which is gradually eroding the soul of our sport? What is the future for football? Despite my view that the current FIFA corruption debacle is a damning indictment on individuals and not football itself, it is just another example of the capacity money has to corrupt. However, as is the case with disproportionate, extreme concentrations of wealth in wider society (both of which are interlinked) it’s clear that collectively we won’t unite to redress the balance until something catastrophic forces us to. We enjoy living in our bubbles don’t we…