Arsenal Versus Man Utd: A Billion Viewers, Television and Football Today

praying to the soccer godI’ve read in too many places that one billion people watched yesterday’s 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Manchester United. Whilst that’s probably nonsense (nobody ever cites where that figure comes from), it’s fitting that in London’s Observer today, James Robinson offers us a long overview of the shift in sport brought about by the power of television in recent years.

Robinson starts with an account of Milan’s Silvio Berlusconi as the alleged visionary who realised the armchair fan was “slowly becoming as important as those who paid at the turnstile.” He goes on to remind us just how dramatically the landscape has shifted, particularly in England. Readers under the age of 25 or who reside outside Britain may not know how primitive the world of televised football was and how insignificant it was for clubs in the 1980s.

Everton, for example, wanted to limit their appearances on television for fear of “overexposure”, and there wasn’t even any football on television at all in the early months of the 1985-86 season, as broadcasters and club chairmen squabbled over what we’d now see as peanuts.

As recently as 2005, cash from broadcasters provided just a quarter of turnover and, in the 1991-92 season, the one before the Premier League was formed, when Leeds were crowned champions, Ian Wright was top scorer and gate receipts still generated half of the revenue of clubs in the top flight, TV money provided a mere nine per cent of turnover. Peter Robinson, the former Liverpool chief executive, remembers the start of the 1985-86 season, when football was not televised at all. ‘There was no deal in place. It only came back on at New Year and the value of the contract when it was signed was about £600,000, which covered all four divisions.’ He remembers that negotiators on both sides of the table had reservations about the value of live televised football. ‘The broadcasters would play down the value,’ he says. ‘They’d say things like, “It’s a long time for people to be sitting down,” claiming that most TV programmes were no more than 45 minutes.

Robinson goes on to document the rise of the armchair fan in Britain, though one does wonder whether this is all quite as new as he says. I had legions of friends at school two decades ago who supported Liverpool and Manchester United (my town was fifty-six miles south of London) and who would never see them play. Still, no doubt there are more of them today (especially globally, though the numbers Robinson cites are from Britain).

Figures extrapolated from a survey of 3,000 people show that an estimated 30 million men and women boast about being ‘big fans’ of certain clubs, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool the most popular. But less than half (46 per cent) of those who claim to have a life-long passion have ever seen their teams play in the flesh and another one in 10 will do so only once in a lifetime. Armchair fans are also fickle, the survey found, with just over a quarter maintaining an interest in their team for three years. Furthermore, 2.6m armchair fans will change allegiance five times during their lives

WM 2006, public viewing in Siegen

Unfortunately, as the article shifts from reviewing change to assessing the prospects for the future, it begins to read like a Sky Sports marketing prospectus. We read a lot about the coming power of Asia, and whilst this is undoubtedly important, gold-digging dreams of the China market are as old as organised sports. Sure, the Asian market is important and it is growing; a small slice of a huge market is bound to be profitable. But some suggest we shouldn’t get carried away about the prospects for soccer in Shanghai.

Moreover, some of the speculation is frankly just far-fetched.

Some newer innovations are mind-boggling. Uefa already use hi-tech gadgets to track every player in a Champions League game so they can produce statistics on how many yards they cover or tackles they make. Now Sony want to use that information to create a ‘virtual’ version of the live game that will run alongside it, allowing viewers at home to pause matches and use their games consoles to become part of the action. ‘If Wayne Rooney misses a shot you will be able to stop the game, take it yourself and see if you can do better,’ says Uefa’s Daniel Marion.

Really? I enjoy football video games, and I enjoy watching Wayne Rooney play football, but it’s a bit much to think I might want to do both at once. Sure, maybe some people will, but it’s hardly likely to be the future of football on television. When one hears this kind of nonsense, reminiscent of the hyperbolic froth people who lived in Silicon Valley at the turn of the century will remember all too well, one wonders if this isn’t becoming a bubble waiting to be burst.

LET THE WORLD CUP BEGIN!When Robinson tries to put football into the perspective of global sports, he seems to think an epochal shift has suddenly taken place.

Established Western sports are engaged in a global scramble to tap emerging markets and, not surprisingly, the Americans, who boast four of the six most affluent leagues (American football’s NFL, Major League Baseball, ice hockey’s NHL, and basketball’s NBA) have led the way. Last week’s game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants at Wembley was the first step towards establishing a global foothold, and the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has talked about basing a NFL team on another continent within 10 years, with at least four games a year being played outside the US before then.

American football has been trying to establish a foothold abroad for decades, though I’m not sure why Robinson is citing American football in Britain as an attempt to skewer an “emerging market”. I attended the “American Bowl” at a sold-out Wembley Stadium fifteen years ago; millions once watched the NFL on television in Britain; remember the London Monarchs of the World League? (No, you probably don’t. That’s the point.)

That’s not to say there isn’t something of a scramble going on, though in fact, the NFL is way behind baseball and basketball amongst American sports in selling itself globally. Basketball, for innumerable reasons, is a much more serious competitor to soccer worldwide. If Robinson thinks Sun Jihai or Li Tie are audience winners in China, he should consider Yao Ming.

As if someone entirely different wrote the second half of what began as an interesting essay, Robinson then manages to ignore everything he wrote earlier by concluding that

Despite the influx of TV money, football has remained essentially unchanged, which may help to explain its appeal. But the prospect of game times being changed, or even moving European matches to another continent, as raised in these pages last week, is sure to enrage fans, no matter how remote that prospect currently seems.

Pardon me? Apart from the fact yesterday’s Manchester United versus Arsenal game featured twenty-two men chasing around a ball, it bore awfully little resemblance to a comparable game played in November two decades ago, before the massive infusion of television money. Everything from the stadium to the ticket prices to the nationalities of the players to the style of play to the crowd noise to the (alleged) global audience of one billion and even the colouring of the ball suggests rather considerable change has taken place.

Albeit, there was still a beetroot-faced Scotsman seething on the touchline at the end of game arguing his team had been robbed by the referee. Maybe I and a billion others will soon be able to change that too, using Sony’s virtual console device?

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