Football on TV: How the Medium Became the Message

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

‘Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a television show.’ This is one of the favoured straplines of the Against Modern Football movement. It’s fair to say that Sky and some of their competitors have taken more than their fair share of liberties from the match going fan over the last 25 or so years. Broadcast deals have become so gargantuan recently that television is now the game’s supreme kingmaker.

Since 2014, the Premier League has experienced a watershed moment; all of its clubs now make more money from television revenue than they do from the punters that click through the turnstiles. Those changes have become pronounced for the match going fan, with kickoff times rescheduled at only a few weeks’ notice. Long distance away matches are moved to Sundays (the most expensive day to use public transport) or worse, Monday and Friday evenings, at a whim. The tail is wagging the dog.

The coverage of football has begun to alter too, with the game evolving from sport to entertainment. The soap opera style narratives between matches have begun to replace events on the pitch to the extent that viewing figures have started to drop. Ken Early attributes this to viewing habits and that, in his words, people like everything about football except the actual football. Earlier this year, I wrote that cup football is declining in popularity because people don’t have time or space for it anymore, however, this seems to be becoming increasingly true of the game itself.

In short, it’s too late, football is already a television show and that fact is beginning to manifest itself. This isn’t entirely to be rued and regretted, there are benefits for the match going fan. Recently, the Premier League announced a new ruling for the housing of away fans. Now, clubs are forbidden from siphoning them all into a distant upper tier. At least a section of the away following must be seated close to the pitch, the Premier League have ruled.

“It’s about atmosphere. One of the unique things about our game, particularly in England, is the amount of away fans and the noise they create. When an away goal is scored, you want that atmosphere and interaction between the two sets of fans,” reasoned Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore. Buried beneath his lofty prose there is an obvious subtext. Away fans close to the pitch is optically more satisfying- which means it makes for better television.

It is the same reason that the Premier League have introduced a cap on away ticket pricing. Away supporters bring noise and colour to matches and numbers of visiting supporters have been dropping due to rising cost and increasing inconvenience. The camera will pan to the away enclosure more often than it will the home supporters during a televised match. This is because overseas television audiences have indicated that they respond favourably to the passion and atmosphere of English football.

The Premier League have responded in kind, which means supporters inside the ground have been bumped up from studio audience to minor characters in the plot in the minds of the TV executives. Last year I attended an Arsenal Supporters’ Trust meeting led by the Premier League’s market research consultancy Populous. During the meeting, Populous told us that the infamous 39th game– where each team plays an additional league fixture overseas- was not pursued because their research showed that overseas fans were not interested in bringing the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak. The local setting was considered a vital part of the experience or the ‘product’ that they enjoyed. To take the game out of its setting is to deprive it of one of its main attractions.

As such, the Premier League and its clubs have focused on more localised initiatives, such as fan parks, so that overseas fans can gather for games. Arsenal recently arranged a screening of the North London derby at a fan park in Mumbai. As ever in a rapidly corporatizing industry, ‘breaking America’ is something of a game changer and so it has proved with Premier League television rights.

Previously, the Premier League had been aired on more specialist sport stations such as Fox and ESPN, popular with ex-pats and 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from Europe and the Americas. (Fox and ESPN are two of the main soccer channels in South America). NBCSN purchased Premier League rights to the tune of $83m a season in 2013. NBC were attracted to the Premier League’s burgeoning popularity, but the time zone also proved to be alluring.

Kickoff times are well in advance of primetime slots, usually in the morning. NBC had space in their schedule that did not impede other flagship programming. NBCSN is using the Premier League as a vehicle to gain a more significant foothold in the sports television market in America. I am convinced that NBC have become a huge consideration for the Premier League, as the station looks to gently coerce soccer towards the more casual viewer stateside. Earlier this season, the Premier League announced a crackdown on foul and abusive language from players.

I am merely speculating, but I would not be surprised at all if this embargo was motivated with television in mind. Premier League games are often aired early in the morning in the states. I hope it is not a sweeping generalisation to suggest TV networks are a little more sensitive about coarse language in the US compared to Britain because they want to attract advertisers. As the proprietor of this site discovered, NBC do not want their airwaves to be polluted with blue language, especially at 8 o’clock in the morning.

I would not be surprised to see other similar Premier League directives in the near future that have television at their heart. Timewasting could be next on the chopping block, watching Fraser Forster line up a goal-kick for 90 seconds every three minutes does not make for good TV. Indeed, do not be surprised if mandatory water breaks become a feature of Premier League life in a few years, even in the depths of winter.

The Premier League will likely point to spurious health and safety legislation, but in reality, advertising revenue will be the driver for change. In Brazilian football television coverage, short voiceover ads from the likes of Brahma and Caixa are aired every time a goalie spots up a goal kick. It will only be a matter of time before the Premier League cottons onto some similar innovation. Perhaps they will tolerate timewasting from goalkeepers more readily if those vacant seconds could be spent selling us house insurance.

Part of the consequence of football transitioning into television entertainment, is that selling advertising is becoming its primary function. The Premier League have given the go ahead to sleeve sponsorship on shirts this week. BT Sport paid out millions of pounds for television rights so that they could sell broadband packages. LeTv in Hong Kong have purchased Premier League television rights as a vehicle to sell their new brand of smartbikes. Traditionally, the game has been a profitable platform for advertising, but slowly, advertising is becoming a platform for the game. Little by little, the medium is becoming the message.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


With thanks to @forzamanzora for his input.


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