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Football keeps getting richer, but it’s the fans who pay for it

Category : Business

The amazing £3bn Premier League rights deal struck by Sky and BT will do nothing to enrich the supporters’ experience of the game

Unveiled by Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore with all the flourish of a music hall magician, the new football broadcast deal gleefully defies the double-dip recession. The numbers are eye-watering. The overall figure, Sky’s riches bulked up by BT’s arrival to muscle in on the football action, is £3bn for the three seasons from 2013, a 71% increase on the previous pittance.

It is 10 times the original agreement of 20 years ago, itself denounced at the time as insanity. It means that the team finishing bottom of the league will receive north of £60m, significantly more than Manchester City got this year for winning the whole shebang. Incredibly, Sky and BT will have to shell out £6.6m for each match they show. Each minute, often spent lining up a wall at free kicks or arguing with the officials, will cost them £73,000.

We should not be churlish. There is much to celebrate here. The product of a British (all right, English) industry is in such demand that companies are straining every fiscal sinew to hurl money at it. Treating football purely as a business, the new TV arrangement is a triumph in and of itself and a vindication of everything the league has done.

Why, then, are some of us not unfurling the bunting? Why did the announcement of the bulging new bag of money cause not the popping of champagne corks, but a sinking feeling in the stomach? It’s simple. For all the hoopla and honeyed words, each successive football/TV contract has further sundered the traditional relationship between the game and its core support, has driven an ever-bigger wedge between what we had, a community-based passion, and what we have, a corporate entertainment.

Football’s apparently unstoppable economic boom has had its very obvious beneficiaries; the players, their agents, the salesmen of luxury cars and the manufacturers of those huge headphones the footballers now use to lock out every last vestige of the real world. Let’s be frank: in the entire history of human commerce, no more efficient system for siphoning cash from the pockets of the many straight into the man-bags of the few has ever been invented.

For supporters, the experience has been very different. For all the excitement they still get from the game, they nevertheless find themselves in the grip of an awful pincer movement. Emotionally, they are further removed from things they originally loved about the sport – the feeling of being part of something organic and real, the knowledge that the players were slightly better paid versions of themselves.

This, I’ll admit, may be a very middle-aged view of the world. For the young, the fact that the players get to work in gold-plated hovercrafts and can only be adored from a distance is probably part of the attraction. After all, that’s how it used to be before the democratisation of pop music. David Bowie has been replaced by David Beckham.

The other arm of the pincers is financial. Football used to be great and cheap to watch. It’s still great, but now you pay through every orifice to enjoy it. Leave aside the monthly subscription for Sky’s admittedly brilliant coverage (a burden to which BT will soon, no doubt, be adding); the cost of actually going to football is heinous. In the last 20 years, the price of an average ticket to a top-flight match has not doubled, trebled or quadrupled. No such luck. It has actually rocketed by 1,100%.

It has been a merciless exploitation of an addiction and all justified by the most whopping of big lies. The clubs need our last drop of income, we’re told, to “pay the best players”, “achieve success” and the rest. In Germany, things are different. They still have highly paid footballers, successful clubs, safe and full stadiums and, by the way, a national team that continues to clump ours round the ear, but tickets are relatively affordable.

There’s no escape. All parties are locked in a cycle of dependency. The media companies need football to expand their businesses. Fans just can’t stop watching (and, after the incredible season we’ve just witnessed, who can blame us?). And football is obsessed with the getting and keeping of money.

All of which would be a little more tolerable if, as Scudamore suggested might happen, some of this new cash were to trickle down, to help finance youth development, coaching in schools or better facilities at grounds.

Anyone harbouring such utopian ideas urgently needs to look at the other important document that arrived in the world of football last week. Simon Jordan’s book, Be Careful What You Wish For, is a hand grenade into the millpond of any such wishful thinking. In it, the former Crystal Palace chairman describes in painful, often self-flagellating detail how his vast fortune was envied, eroded and ultimately engulfed by the greed of footballers and their representatives. The synopsis is brutally brief – “I had it; they got it” – and it should be required reading for anyone who gives a tuppenny damn about what is, after all, a huge part of our national culture.

The new dough pouring into the game will change nothing. Rather it will accelerate processes already out of control. The players will get richer, the clubs will grow ever grander and more remote from their fans (now rebranded as “customers”) and theoretically clever businessmen will continue to run football clubs in a way that would disgrace the owners of whelk stalls.

The party will continue apace, the glam and glitz blinding us to the occasional victim slumped in the corner. For the latest of these we need look no further than Glasgow, where Rangers, a global institution, have, thanks to a perfect storm of all the vainglorious pitfalls that beset our clubs, gone to the wall, the husk of its once proud body now being poked at by lawyers and taxmen.

Danny Kelly is a writer and broadcaster on TalkSport

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