The beginning of the end?
A couple of decades ago English clubs earned money from a variety of sources – gate receipts, sponsorship, advertising, player sales, prize money, selling pies and, every now and then, a bit of extra cash for having a game shown on television.
Although some of those revenue streams were obviously more significant than others, depending on the size of the club in question, the fact remained that they all made a noticeable contribution to the coffers.
That all changed in 1992 with the birth of the Premier League and, more specifically, the dawn of the Sky Sports era. Suddenly the money flooding in from television increased dramatically, making it the biggest single source of revenue for most top-flight clubs.
Armed with this new finance, football clubs did what most of us would do in a similar situation: they turned into big spenders. The ultimate outcome is that player wages are now unrecognisable from what they were a quarter of a century ago.
A sort of financial status quo was reached – the television companies pumped fortunes into the game, and the players, possibly deservedly, sucked it out.
Football, as a viable entity, had become entirely reliant on TV. The other revenue streams still exist, of course, but now it is broadcasting rights that make the whole thing tick.
So far, this hasn’t been a problem. In fact, the record television deal that came into effect this season sees the Premier League and its members earning £10 billion over three years.
Which is fine. Pats on the back to everybody involved in this process for creating the world’s biggest sporting cash cow.
But for years now I have been wondering what will happen if this bubble bursts. It will never happen, is the general response I get, before being dismissed as a prophet of doom.
Well, maybe it won’t. But maybe it will. And I think last week we saw the first signs that the bubble might not be as unburstable as people may think.
A small news item, buried by most organisations, revealed that Sky Sports’ like-for-like viewing figures for this season compared to last show a fall of 19 per cent.
And that is despite this being one of the most hotly anticipated seasons in recent history, with most of the best managers now plying their trade in England’s top flight, and the big clubs spending big money on big players.
Of course there could be factors behind the 19 per cent drop. Sky blamed it on illegal streaming, a hot summer and the Olympics, for example. But illegal streaming has always been around – or so I am told – and the Olympics clashed with what, a couple of weekends? And what sort of football fan would say sorry, can’t watch the big game tonight because it’s not cold enough?
Equally, the one-fifth drop in viewers could end up balancing itself out over the course of the season.
Maybe the live games broadcast so far are not as exciting as those shown by the same stage last season, although considering how appalling last season was, I find that highly unlikely.
Maybe people really do watch more football during the colder winter months and, like sporting Pringles, once they start watching games they can’t stop.
Maybe illegal streaming and IPTV are to blame and, if the authorities clamp down on that practice the viewing figures will bounce back.
But those are all maybes. The only reality we can work on right now is that over the first few months of this season, one in five people who watched last year have been busy not watching this year.
And that is something that should strike fear into the hearts of the Premier League and the companies around the globe who are paying a fortune for the rights to show live matches.
We could be seeing the first signs that the delicate foundations upon which the entire modern English game is built are starting to wobble. And the consequences could be catastrophic. The bigger clubs, and those with the billionaire owners, would find a way through. Of course they would. But what about the smaller ones?
English football in its current format is only sustainable through television money
What about those who have based their entire business model on TV revenue? They could be in very serious trouble if that revenue started shrinking or even vanished.
A similar sort of thing happened lower down the league pyramid when ITV Digital went out of business in the early 2000s.
They had agreed to pay the league millions for the rights to show live matches from the second, third and fourth tiers, but the product never took off and the company went into administration.
That sent shockwaves through lower league football. Clubs that had establisheda budget based on a certain amount of television revenue suddenly had to deal with the fact that money wasn’t coming. Several went into administration to survive. And that deal was peanuts compared to the Premier League billions.
I am not suggesting top-flight football is anywhere near that point yet. These latest viewing figures could be a mere blip and the product may actually be as popular with the watching masses as ever. We could even end up with Sky reporting an increase in the number of people watching live matches by the end of the season.
But even if that happens and everything does work out well in the end, these figures should at least serve as a warning to the game not to put all its golden eggs in one basket.
English football in its current format is only sustainable through television money. That is an indisputable fact. But people’s tastes change, and while there will always be a sizable nucleus of football lovers who are prepared to buy the product on offer, more transient viewers may start to move away.
And if the viewing figures are down, broadcasters’ advertising revenue and subscriptions will follow. That means the next television deal may be substantially smaller.
Although this is all hypothetical for now, there is a reasonable chance that at some point TV’s love affair with football will be over; or at least settle into a mundane, stuck-with-each-other sort of marriage; on a tight budget.
Football has to be prepared for that day or there is a real danger that the whole sport could come crashing down.
Poor old Pep
On my goodness, the Pep Guardiola lovers are clutching at straws now.
After going six games without a win – the worst stretch in his managerial career – questions are being asked about the Spaniard’s talents.
Personally, I think the criticism is a bit ridiculous. He has only been in the job for a few months and, like all managers, it would be utterly unfair to start judging him now.
But the Pep lovers have reacted angrily to criticism of their messiah – wheeling out one excuse in particular which made me laugh out loud.
Apparently, Pep doesn’t have good enough players to play the system he wants to play. What, you mean Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta? Having them in your team is not a system, it is a tactical get-out-of-jail free card.
Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail, who I suspect might actually be Pep’s secret lover, last week sobbed that there might not be enough superstar players to go around, and that Guardiola will struggle because of that.
Poor old Pep. It must be hell coping with players like Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sané, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Nolito, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Fernandinho, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nicolás Otamendi, Jesús Navas, Pablo Zabaleta and IIkay Gundogan – a whole team of Andy Coles and Titus Brambles.
A great manager, even just a good one, looks at the players he has and works the system around them. Or alternatively, he coaches those players he has into ones who can play his system.
Suggesting the only way Pep’s system can work is if he buys the best players in the world is proof of what I have been saying all along. He isn’t actually that good at his job.