Over the last fortnight, I have had something of a ‘dialogue’ with the folks at Sky Sports over the very late movement of the recent Hull City v Arsenal fixture. As you may recall, the specifics of Chelsea’s Champions League draw with Atlético Madrid required that Sky rearrange their televised match with Sunderland at 8 days notice to respect Chelsea’s right to a 72 hour grace period prior to a European tie. In turn, this meant Arsenal’s trip to Hull was also moved at 8 days notice to fill the yawning gap in Sky’s schedule.
The game had originally been moved – at 6 weeks notice – to a 5.30 Saturday evening kickoff. The upshot being that trains from Hull back to London were not available after the match. Consequently, many travelling fans (myself not included, happily) had booked hotels for that evening and trains home for the Sunday morning. Not only was the match rescheduled at 8 days notice, laying train tickets and hotel fees to waste, but it was moved to Easter Sunday. A public holiday when public transport is a) more expensive (especially at short notice) and b) less frequent.
The issue probably made the steam clouds from my boiled piss visible from space. Having exchanged several e mails with Sky and the Premier League over the issue, Sky Sports customer support sent me a final and haughty reply this week, which you can view here. There was a line within this reply that caused me to reflect.
“As the end of the season grows nearer, our viewers like to follow the stories at the top and bottom of the leagues and as positions change, decisions are made closer to kick off.”
It was the word ‘stories’ that leapt out at me like a salmon from a stream. It stuck out like a moose wearing a top hat. The old adage goes that a picture can tell a thousand words and sometimes, equally, a word can tell a thousand, well, stories. The customer services agent did not speak of competition, or victories or defeats or even ‘games’ or ‘matches.’ Words that imply that this is some kind of physical, sporting contest we’re witnessing. She chose ‘stories.’
The word betrays Sky’s thinking, (and indeed the thinking of other TV channels), when it comes to broadcasting live sporting events. ‘Story’ implies an underlying plot beyond “team wants / needs to win for league points / qualification to next round of competition.” Incidentally, this sketch from ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ brilliantly satirises the inherent ridiculousness of television companies exaggerating the significance of one off games in the circular structure of the fixture calendar.
The customer services operative spoke exclusively of people sitting on their sofas watching what she referred to as ‘stories.’ One of the favoured straplines of the Against Modern Football movement is ‘Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up Thinking Football is a Television Show.’ Upon receiving that email I realised that it’s already too late. The shark has jumped through the looking glass. One of the most powerful bodies in football explicitly defines football, not as an athletic sporting contest, but as a soap opera.
Of course I’m fully cognizant of the fact that my complaints to BskyB would be dismissed and that robotic auto replies were, realistically, the most I would ever achieve. Arsenal’s November 2013 financial statements show matchday revenues as worth £45m to the club. Broadcasting revenues came in at £52m. I imagine (I can’t be arsed to check) it’s similar for most clubs. He who pays the piper, calls the tune.
If we accept that cash is king, then television audiences are now more important than match going fans. Who knows? In the very near future, my voluminous away credits may not be enough to secure me a Cup Final ticket because I am not subscribed to Sky or BT Sports. After all, my contribution to the ‘stories’ is increasingly less important when I’m in the studio audience, rather than at home on the sofa, swigging from a can of the preferred beverage partner of the Premier League or UEFA. I’m an endangered species.
Of course, ‘stories’ and the sense of soap opera have always existed in football. It’s undeniably part of what makes the sport so alluring. There are heroes, villains, rise and fall narratives, ugly rejection and beautiful acceptance. Only in the insular, self absorbed world of football can a ‘character’ like Luis Suarez, who is unrepentant in his refusal to apologise for racially abusing a fellow professional, be so regularly described as ‘rehabilitated’ simply because he is scoring more goals now.
These days, the demand on the media is to drive more narrative. To squeeze blood from stones and conjure linear plot lines for the ‘audience.’ That communication I received from Sky might have been the final confirmation that football has become The Truman Show. I reflected further on the demand for ‘stories’ this week. As a brutal counter attacking display from Real Madrid tore Bayern Munich asunder, we were treated to a plethora of material declaring the ‘death of tika taka.’
Martin Samuel wrote in the Daily Mail that, “’Real Madrid did not just defeat Bayern Munich last night. They laid waste to an ideal, a philosophy. Pep Guardiola watched from the touchline as his theories were taken apart.” It simply isn’t enough now to say “really good team beats really good team.” It is of course a nonsense to usher in the death of something as nebulous and all encompassing as a ‘philosophy’ because of the result of a football match.
But this isn’t football anymore. These are ‘stories’ now. A dragon must be slain, a knight must be crowned. Someone has to fuck the prom queen. There is also opportunity for ‘storyline development’ when such grand, sweeping conclusions are reached. It leaves open the prospect of the other great plot device of the soap opera. The resurrection. The redemption. The rise from disgrace to distinction.
Like Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, burying somebody (or something) in a grave makes the story even more remarkable when they punch their way out again and emerge victorious from the soil. This is exactly what we are seeing with the ‘story’ of Mesut Özil in the media this season. It’s clear to anybody with functioning eyeballs that he has played well (very well depending on your viewpoint) but that there is probably more to come.
Yet he has been persistently written off as a ‘flop’ by broadcast and written media. Obviously, the narrative that he is a ‘FLOP!’ creates a more captivating story than “doing well, could and probably will do better over time.” I would wager that journalists such as Neil Ashton know full well he has been very far from ‘nicking a living.’ He probably realises full well that there is an excellent chance that Özil will improve next season. At which point we will be treated to a slew of ‘stories’ about his glorious resurrection. His rags to riches tale.
Essentially, what we are seeing is a mortgaging of material for future storylines yet to be scribed. I realised upon receiving that e mail from Sky, with that solitary word mocking me from the page, that we have reached the tipping point of football’s gradual revolution into soap opera. It is still a sport of course, but it’s more than 50% soap opera, we’ve passed through the looking glass. It’s a revolution that is very much being televised. LD.
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