Long-Term View: Football survives, but will we pay?

Date published: Wednesday 1st February 2017 9:05

What of football, when all this turns to ashes? That it might not turn to ashes, that the world will simply continue to tick along, in offices and car-washes and on Sky Sports Super Sunday, is one for you to decide.

But when, without much effort, you could list a range of things that sound not a million miles away from what was going on the last time the whole world got itself into serious bother, and now with the bonus balls of ‘America leading the way’ and ‘apocalyptic weather collapse’ to spice the stew, it does bear some consideration as to whether 2020 and 2025 and 2030 will simply feature more and increasingly ragged attempts by Sky’s marketing department to rouse your interest for ‘The Battle of the Red and White Stripes’ and ‘East Midlands: Let Football Decide’.

If you do think that, then the closest the Premier League has ever seen to Moses (apart from maybe Victor Moses) already called you out, by accident. Nigel Pearson. You remember: you’re an ostrich. You – you’re an ostrich. Can there be anyone more suited to the role of prophet than Pearson, with his weird, difficult stare, his silences, his backstory of stalking alone and fighting off rabid wild dogs with sticks and sheltering in outhouses in the Carpathian
Mountains?

And if you do think that, you’re of a mindset not unlike that held, rather more out of necessity than choice, by Sky and BT Sports themselves. The fabulous piece by Joe Devine on this site last week spoke, amongst other things, of the knife cutting into the side of Sky and BT Sport’s football coverage, gouging out viewers. Otherwise known as ‘the internet’.

As a guesstimate I’d say that, if you could guarantee finding an illegal stream that was 80% good, the maximum Sky and BT Sport can then charge for their package (assuming customers are predominantly football fans, and that’s clearly the bulk of the trade for both) going forward is about £15 a month. Just to save you the faff of actually finding the stream and chasing those hoppy little ‘x’s around the screen. They, as you’re probably aware, do not charge that per month, and I see no logic (beyond utter wall-eyed desperation) for the price they do charge coming down.

In doing a little research, I read a good article from the Guardian in 2015 where their reporter went to Sweden to watch a pirated stream being produced and investigate the issue. One comment struck me, from an anonymous streamer: “When networks put all programming live and free over the internet, streaming sites…will disappear because they won’t be needed. Cable/satellite providers and broadcasters should realise this and develop new profit models accordingly.” A shiny new penny to him or anyone else who can take a credible stab at drawing that ‘new profit model’ to resemble anything but a wall destroyed by a sledgehammer.

There isn’t one, at least not based in anything like the internet’s current guise. The reality – that film studios and sports broadcasters particularly, but a lot of other people besides, are still chattering their teeth to try to avoid saying – is that beneath their attempts at being hip by running a lot of interactive content and having banter with Burger King via dedicated Twitter accounts, is the direction of the 21st century is armed with a blowtorch to their profitability. And for a simple reason, and one that will likely knock your socks off with the power of its revelation. People don’t care, on the internet. You can’t see them, not caring. They’ll steal your films, they’ll steal your football, they’ll throw a few rape-based death threats around, because you won’t know they did it. This collective epidemic of amorality doesn’t say wonderful things about the human race, but there you are.

Major broadcasters of every stripe can play catch up, and they do. Witness the successful lawsuit brought against the Pirate Bay in 2008. Witness the recent barring of the Roja Directa streaming site by internet providers. It worked a dream: it was basically impossible to type some variation of ‘Roja Directa Proxy’ into Google, and cast your lazy, amoral eye down to the very first link.

There is a reckoning coming for the internet, as speeds increase and thus downloads and streaming only burnish in quality: either it’s going to go ever deeper into the badlands that pull the rug from under the 20th century world of entertainment, or the major commercial broadcasters are going to put a serious jackboot down on the whole thing. But my feeling is, if there’s one thing stronger than a major commercial jackboot, it’s the combined power of a lot of anonymous internet people. I actually think the commercial broadcasters will lose this one, both the battles and the war, and the reality of hurling £7billion at football broadcasting will start to feel very tenuous indeed.

That’s in the short term. When the insanely overblown contract BT and Sky entered into with the Premier League next comes up for renewal, we’ll see. In the longer term – assuming, as is probably sensible, that fire and dust will envelop the Earth – how’s it going to look, this football thing of ours? Here’s some poignant phrases from the Wiki entry for the Wartime League, established in England from 1939-45. ‘Football stadiums during this time were used as military bases’. ‘In the interests of public safety, the number of spectators allowed to attend these games was limited to 8000’. ‘The Football League War Cup was established’.

Most poignant of all, though, is that even though a football stadium packed with Brits makes a pretty appetising target to a German bomber, people still went. They couldn’t help it – if you can go to watch football under fear of aerial death, then you really have to go to watch football. This thing of ours survives; and you’d like to think, that if the world does become a far more chaotic and violent place than any of us in the west are used to, the human race will always keep to its morals, where football is concerned. That is, as a way for two groups of people to go against each other, in what I believe is literally the most humane, artful, exciting and elevating way two groups of people can go against each other, and still keep the peace and shake a few hands afterwards.

I think the human race will always want to see that. What it will actually look like is anyone’s guess.

Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter

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