Thursday, 13 October 2011

TV football rights spat obscures bigger issues for the Premier League

Liverpool Football Club, my team, have been hammered in the last 24 hours for suggesting that it deserves a bigger slice of the rights for foreign TV coverage of the Premier League. Words like greed, anti-competitive and disgraceful have been freely bandied around by an unholy alliance including the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel and Dave Whelan of Wigan Athletic.

My own view is that this row is a negotiating ploy and a shot across the bows of UEFA and the Premier League to properly implement the Financial Fair Play rules which Manchester City seem intent on driving a coach and horses through. The Liverpool position appears to be, “implement the rules and allow us to be competitive or we’ll raise revenue any way we can, in order to be competitive.”

However, the danger is that this spat obscures bigger issues which ultimately the Premier League is going to have to grapple with, like it or not. Taking off my football hat and putting on my marketing hat for a moment, it has been clear for some time that there is a vast untapped audience for Premier League football, an audience which is currently locked out of the Sky Sports monopoly.

Who are these people? I refer to them as the ‘occasional fan’ who wants to, half a dozen times a year, watch his or her team but does not want, or cannot afford, to shell out for a Sky Sports subscription which includes films, news and all sorts of stuff they neither have the time or the inclination to watch. Those locked out include pensioners, students and those like me who just don’t have the time because of family commitments to sit down every week and watch football on TV.

“Get yourself off to the match then and watch it live” I hear you cry. Only I can’t because Liverpool matches are all sold out in advance and the season ticket waiting list was closed when it reached fifteen years!

But, there is a ready-made solution. In American baseball, the rules allow that once a match is sold out it can be streamed live for fans who couldn’t get in to watch. Most clubs now have their own TV stations or broadband streams which do everything except show live matches. Only we can’t have that here because of the Premier League deal with Sky Sports which gives exclusivity for all matches in the UK.

We currently therefore have the absurd situation in which an individual in Hong Kong, Singapore or India can watch a Premier League match live from Anfield, but someone living half a mile from the ground on Breck Road cannot. The revenue potential from this ‘occasional fan’ grouping is enormous and I’m just talking about UK viewers, I haven’t even got into streaming matches across Asia!

The newspaper industry spent the best part of a decade denying that the web would have any impact on its business strategy. It was wrong. My guess is that, at some stage, the Sky Sports deal will be pulled apart by the same pressures and antagonisms. Don’t believe me? How many football fans out there have used Iraq Goals or some other illegal streaming to watch their team I wonder?

The dam is breaking. I look forward to the day when I can pop upstairs, turn the computer on and pay a tenner to my club to watch a home match without tying myself down to a year’s Sky subscription. Bring it on!


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