Sky’s 1000th Premiership match was nearly a dull reserve game between the next FA Cup finalists. Fortunately a postponed Spurs v Blackburn with two goals and rattling woodwork saved us that embarrassment. But how did we get to 1000 games so fast?
Rupert Murdoch’s Sky had a simple aim when it bought football. It sought to save its failing business model by producing content that people would finally pay to watch. High BBC standards in documentaries, comedies, dramas and news meant there was little scope for Pay TV in Britain, and Sky was struggling with low subscriptions. Even films couldn’t stop the rot as people rented videos.
In the years after screening the first match, the same company bought up more and more football. It bought rights to lower league games to stop terrestrial channels offering any games for free. And it had to. Unless it was your team any game from any league would do on a Sunday afternoon.
The plan worked. Within a few years Sky grew its subscriber base on the back of football and used that base to sell more channels, more services, more movies, and most importantly more football.
Thinking back to the first Sky game, in which Teddy Sheringham scored the only goal in a Forest win over Liverpool, it is hard to grasp Sky’s vision. Amid howls of horror and the controversy of Brian Clough declaring he’d stay home to east his Sunday roast instead of manage his team for TV, it was hard to imagine what would follow.
No one would have paid for televised English football back then. Most games were dull. Most teams dogmatically adhered to long ball ‘pragmatism’. And going to home games cost a pittance anyway. People only watched on Sundays because the pubs closed early and the other three channels offered little alternative.
But Sky had an idea.
Depriving terrestrial viewers of live matches was not enough and they knew it. The brand had to improve so they improved the brand big time.
BBC pundits offering stereotypes in place of analysis were replaced by young and enthusiastic ‘presenters’ who scribbled on screens with electronic pens. And out went a range of three angles from three mounted cameras, which allowed for an occasional missed goal they had not caught. To replace that came thirty cameras facing every which way, offering wide shots and close ups spliced together as the action unfolded.
Slow motion replays and Andy Gray’s scribbles rightly drew derision. But they paved the way for computer generated offside lines, animated tactical diagram’s, and the option to watch from the angle of your choice. And that has all been good for us viewers.
But all this was still just gloss over a sadly grim picture. The game itself was awful. Tactics, technique and fitness had stagnated since the seventies. Grounds were dilapidated. And in 1992 the biggest foreign signing the game had known was still that of two Argentineans 1978 that led many to accuse Spurs of effectively cheating.
The game had to change. Attitudes had to change. And Sky had one tool with which to do change things. Money.
Pouring cash into the sport helped. It allowed sides to buy aging stars like Klinsmann and Vialli. And those aging stars bought with them new ideas about training and diet that overcame early resistance and rubbed off on managers and players alike. It even allowed sides to bring in foreign managers like Wenger, who overcame a ‘nine pints a night’ culture to make arsenal; the fittest team in England.
The cash did something else too. It enabled clubs to rebuild their grounds. I often lament the loss of great venues like the Baseball Ground or Roker Park. But the Kop is better now than when it was little more than a large bike shed, and White Hart Lane’s futuristic roof-mounted screens are a sight to behold even now they are ten years old.
As the game started to fix itself Sky profited from its vision. The early days of aged stars picking up pensions have long gone. Instead young stars from across the globe queue up to play here.
Ronaldo, widely touted among the world’s best players, has signed a new five year contract to stay in England long term. Cesc Fabregas left Spain to learn his trade at Arsenal. And Essien overlooked Italy to play for Chelsea? That would have been unthinkable in 1992, and for that we should all thank Sky.
Of course there are down sides.
It is now rare to watch a game at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon. People wrongly consider themselves experts about players they have only seen through a cameraman’s lens. Games and players are over-hyped by a medium that needs every game to draw big crowds. And controversy has expanded beyond reality with any contentious refereeing decision, even absolutely correct ones, turned into ‘drama’ for the sake of selling.
But other complaints are fatuous.
Sky money did not create lazy, pampered and over paid stars. Complaints about them have existed for years with little evidence ever offered in the form of concrete examples. And the foreign stars it bought in didn’t invent cheating. John Barnes moved to Liverpool from Watford and admitted he had to get used to going down instead of shooting in the box.
And the most fatuous complaint of all is that Sky has hurt attendances. The oft said truth that gates have fallen this season has been ludicrously linked with football on TV. Yet common sense says that if Wigan, Watford and Reading replace Sunderland, Leeds and Birmingham, attendances must inevitably be lower.
Of course that misdiagnosis is partly Sky’s fault. After all, who are Birmingham, Sunderland and Leeds? Are they on a different channel?