Friday, May 11, 2007

Football saved Sky - Margin

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?


Ebren said...

In 1992, when Sky bought the premiership rights, there were three free sports channels with cable or satellite.

Sky Sports, Eurosport, and Star sports (I think).

Now there are none - you have to pay for all the channels that actually show sports, rather than sports news - and Sky has three general channels, and sky sports extra, and pay per view.

Sky was so keen to promote their new "sports" product, they sent me a video of the premierships goals (quite a lot from Peter Nlovou - sp??!?! - for Coventry in a truly awful kit. He was rated as a "great player for the future").

Sky's business model was saved by football, but it wasn't innovation. It was stolen - en masse - from American. Down to the title "Monday night football", close angles, fast cuts, rock music, and graphics.

I leave you with this:

mimi said...

Football may have saved Sky, and I did enjoy reading this, but Sky never saved nought, and Murdoch is and always will be, the devil incarnate.

andrewm said...

I am an expert on every footballer who ever lived. I have no doubt whatsoever that I am correct in my opinions. I am not joking.

offside said...

And that, my friends, is the andrewm I have missed.

I don't have Sky. Never did.

mimi said...

andrewm: have you made your opinions known here? Are you for or against Murdoch and are you old enough to have quaffed the champers when Maxwell fell off the Lady Ghislaine?

andrewm said...

mimi, I am against Murdoch in principle, though I'm sure he's a lovely man. By contrast I am in favour of offside in principle, even though I know he's a very silly man.

What is champers when it's at home?

offside said...


have you considered that I might be even sillier than you think?

mimi said...

don't be so naive. Champers is what we drink at Twickers or Henners when we win. It's just a class thing obviously. Or in my case, a glass thing. Have a glass of the bubbly when you win.
I might have to write a piece on this!

andrewm said...

offside, your silliness is clearly well beyond the comprehension of a sensible man like me.

I once thought I had gg figured out, but then he did something so monumentally silly that I haven't been sure of anything since.

mimi said...

andrewm: f'whicht, what is silly?

file said...


I enjoyed your piece and thought that you put your points well even if I find it difficult to sympathise with business interests vs. human interests

the sky story may have improved the game itself in England but I am not sure it has improved football

I see clubs as local institutions with enormous potential to unite and vitalize communities and I think it's a shame that this potential is being slowly crushed by economic disparity, profiteering and mindless globalisation

murdoch is just doing what he does, he's not responsible for capitalism or globalisation or football and most of the new money too in football really couldn't give a flying fig about the game

whenever the fancy takes them they will all flee the sinking ship and the baby will probably go out with the bathwater but they will happy as harry with their old profits and new projects while we will be sick as parrots with no cuttlefish

having 'enjoyed' the baseball ground quite a few times I can't say that I lament too much over it's passing though!

file 1: hypocrite
file 2: no, I'm just complex
file 1: egit

sorry margin, clearly thought provoking stuff, thanks!

MotM said...

Margin - I'm going to take issue on a couple of points.

I was at a Football Supporters Association meeting in about 93 when I was the only person who raised his hand to support Sky. Why? Because once football understood its worth (and it was underpriced until the latest deal) someone was going to pay. I recognised the vastly improved "product" Sky offered and was willing to pay the price. If not me, my mother would pay through a poll tax (the BBC Licence) or a regressive tax (advertising). It's my argument now when I am happy to pay for the stupendous coverage Sky gives cricket.

Secondly, and I say this as an Everton fan so I'm biased, but I don't think English football was so bad in the 80s. English teams did well in Europe and the national team was only beaten by the winners in the '86 and '90 World Cups and were arguably unfortunate on both counts. Yes modernisation was needed, but the standard up until the European ban really bit, was good. I seldom saw players outside Italy who would have improved Everton or Liverpool in the 80s.

andrewm said...

Mouth, in terms of the sheer quality of the football it's hard to argue with your second point, certainly.

Umm, that's all.

andrewm said...

PS. Did you know that Don Revie missed the 1949 Cup Final because of violent nose-bleeding?

Margin said...

Clubs still are local institutions. They run charitable trusts for local areas, and they run education programmes for local school children, and they even run their own community football leagues.

And a lot of that is fairly new and facilitated by the money sky has poured into the game. For example - Spurs went to Downing Street to launch a £4.5million community trust. That is more money than any club could afford to give away in 1992. Let alone Spurs who I believe had a capacity of just 25,000 seats in those days.

Murdoch is a symptom of capitalism - and he certainly doesn't do football because he loves the sport - but his network has done pretty well out of the game by doing pretty well for the game.

Margin said...


I'm happy to pay the license fee as the BBC is excellent at most things - just not sport. But other than that I agree with your first point.

And on your second point. I might have exagerated the extent of the stagnation and dirge. but it was only an exageration. few teams played good football by the time Sky turned up. And stagnation seems a reasonable explanation of our contrasting european success before and after the ban.

Margin said...


as an everton fan - I'm sure you'll appreciate the tactical aspect of Liverpool never winning the title since the back pass rule came in.

MotM said...

Margin - It wasn't just the back pass rule! Clemence used to come out of his area and Schumacher any forward and get a ticking off!

And I agree - there were some really poor teams about, but maybe that was the case all over Europe / World. The 1994 World Cup was pretty dire!

Margin said...


don't get me started on refs and liverpool - 'old trafford rules' has nothing on the old Anfield curse.

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