Media: Football should leave the TV game to the professionals

When ITV screened its reconstruction of the Hillsborough tragedy, with terrible scenes of supporters caged in open terraces, it served as a powerful reminder of the primitive manner in which even top class football was organised until a few years ago, in contrast to the rapid changes taking place today.

When ITV screened its reconstruction of the Hillsborough tragedy,

with terrible scenes of supporters caged in open terraces, it served as

a powerful reminder of the primitive manner in which even top class

football was organised until a few years ago, in contrast to the rapid

changes taking place today.



That change can be neatly summarised by two words: money and

television.



The front page headlines devoted to Kevin Keegan’s shock decision to

quit Newcastle United and who will replace him needed financial rather

than sports journalists to pinpoint the exact reason last week:

Newcastle’s flotation on the Stock Exchange, now temporarily

postponed.



Football has become an overheated new business sector, because of the

influx of huge funds from TV, led by BSkyB. And, many speculators

assume, the prospect of more to come from pay-per-view and new digital

channels devoted to and run by individual clubs. Mad sums of extra

revenue, running into billions of pounds, are being bandied about.



At a conference held on the business of sport by the Instititute of

Economic Affairs last month there was much debate about whether

newly-floated clubs should be classified as media groups, alongside TV,

as is Caspian plc, owner of Leeds United, or leisure groups (Manchester

United).



The third option, favoured incidentally by Sir George Russell - outgoing

chairman of the Independent Television Commission - is that they are

really in the business of mass market entertainment, with merchandising

and branded goods adding to the pot. This at least makes sense of the

way footballers behaving badly are featuring as regularly as pop stars

and politicians on the front pages of the tabloids.



But all this hype is dangerous. It is true that the turning point for

football came in 1992, with the first BSkyB/Premier League deal, which

started the flood of TV subscription income into the sector. Renewed at

a raised fee in 1996, it has fed directly into the spiralling fees paid

to top footballers. But those involved in the fundamentals of the game

have not changed that much. Most footballers are still headstrong young

males. They have got lucky: like lottery winners they are richer not

wiser.



Consequently, the sector as a whole is crying out for sound advice on

how to position itself. With the extra cash comes more exposure and high

expectations.



In my view, the clubs should be very cautious about diverting limited

management skills into running their own TV channels. They must

concentrate on football, and let media partners, such as BSkyB, do the

rest for them.



Second, they should not become too dazzled about the prospects of

manipulating fans through pay-per-view: as sober consultants warned last

week, estimates are probably grossly inflated. Bust has a horrible way

of following boom.



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