Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football queries the worth of Football's latest TV deal
£10 million a game is what the latest Sky/BT deal for the Premiership rights amounts to. At White Hart Lane which I used to frequent before I fell out of love with the self-appointed ‘best league’ in the world that translates to £270 per head of those in the stands. Except apart from those in the Directors Box, on the bench or on the pitch none of us will see a penny of this extraordinary largesse. Instead you can rest assured the ticket prices will rise once again at the start of next season, with the obligatory gnashing of teeth, nice words from the broadcasters about the importance of matchday ‘atmosphere’ to provide the backdrop to their super seven days a week, and sweet FA done to change matters.
Lord Sugar has been on the airwaves bemoaning the deal’s impact on the England team. An easy enough target after England's early exit from Brazil 's World Cup 2014 but those of us of a certain fan vintage can remember England failing to qualify for World Cups in 1974 and 1978, not forgetting USA 94 too when the Premiership was only two years old. The deal won't help England but the reasons for the failure to get any close to matching ‘66 or Italia ‘90 achievements go deeper than ever-increasing injections of TV money into football.
The root cause of the England team's failure is the same reason the broadcasters billions won't benefit football as a sport. Because by selling off the Premiership the FA turned itself into something unique in sport, a governing body that has zero control over its most elite performers. The foreignness of the owners and the players who benefit from the TV millions isn’t the problem, not really. It's the fact that the Premier League clubs and their squads are an entirely independent entity of the governing body, divorced in any meaningful sense from football as a sport.
‘The best league in the world’? In football certainly the richest. But on what basis is that money dished out? It used to be the case that the Premier League invested in serious empirical research to establish the changes in the class, gender, race, gender and geographical base of the fan audience. This was quietly abandoned five or six years ago. It couldn’t possibly be that they didn’t like the answers? That the fan base had become unchanging, getting older, whiter, maler. The Premiership fears the commercial consequences if it was revealed that precious few new audiences are being attracted.
Whisper it quietly but has anybody chosen which beer to drink, which smartphone to buy, what bank to open an account with, an airline to fly with on the basis of their shirt sponsorship, having a stadium named after them, or appearance on that wallpaper of logos that managers and players are annoyingly contractually obliged to give their post-match interviews in front of? The commodification is so overpowering the commercial benefits are negligible at best.
But Sky, BT and the FA cannot afford to admit any of this. Instead the hype goes into overdrive, the biggest this, the best that, meanwhile participation in actually playing 11-a-side football, the bedrock of the sport, continues to plummet.
Of course football needs money to survive but there is absolutely no evidence that from this latest deal much more than a token investment or two will go into the sporting end of the game. Instead the rich clubs and the rich players will go on getting richer and never mind the rest. The FA having surrendered control of the elite end of the sport they supposedly to the Premiership have found allies every bit as disinterested in governance for the good of the game as themselves. A living wage for all who work at clubs paying players and managers hundreds of thousands a week? Not our responsibility answers the Premier League Chief Executive.
Are fans much bothered? Provided those well-paid players deliver what they are expected to, continuing Premiership status, victories over detested rivals, Cup runs, trophies and Championships the level of obvious discontent remains low.
We go to football to get away from the awkward conflicts of everyday life, but the dissatisfaction rumbles on. Of course even with all these well-rewarded stars playing for our teams except for the gilded few trophies are what we dream of, not lift. And when mid-table mediocrity turns to a relegation struggle soon enough the rumblings of discontent get louder. But this remains, to date, no kind of rebellion with the purpose to change the whole rotten set-up that modern football has become.
The latest TV deal is the most recent episode in the transformation of the game into a business we were told was a post-Hillsborough tragedy necessity. But there are many different versions of modernisation. Football's is the neoliberal version, every possible part of the game sold off to the highest bidder. Broadcasters the highest bidders of all. Opening the door to stadium naming rights, shirt sponsorship, corporate boxes, commercial branding of everything that moves and most that doesn’t in and around the game. No children’s football team now is complete without a shirt sponsor for goodness sake.
It's a process that chips inexorably away at all the values that once shaped the popular passion of being a fan, the depth and breadth of commitment that made football such an attractive proposition for investors in the first place. What was it that Marx once wrote? ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ The profanity that modern football has become truly knows no bounds.
Vote with our feet? Some of us have, I cashed in my Spurs season ticket to follow non-league football a good few seasons ago and haven’t looked back. Its raw and frankly primitive, but doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t, eleven blokes trying to put the ball in the other lot’s net. Lewes FC, fan-owned, in the Ryman Premier League, the Dripping Pan, anytime you fancy it you’ll be very welcome. You'll have to turn up mind, you won't find us on the box, Super Saturday or any other day or night of the week. And thank goodness for that.
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Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.