On the 30th anniversary of the first Premier League season, here’s the second part of the story of how it came to be in the first place. The first part is here.
By the time the formation of the Premier League was announced on April 5 1991, much had changed from the FA’s original lofty intentions. Of the suggestions in Alex Fynn’s report on how a new top division could segue with the interests of the game in a general sense, only the one – reducing to 18 teams would mean a greater slice of the pie, when it became available – was still in play, and that would not survive the actual formation of the league.
There was a specific point at which the amount of control that the FA were prepared to cede to the clubs became perfectly apparent. With momentum towards this new league – now rebranded as the ‘Premier League’ rather than the ‘Super League’ – starting to build, the FA held a meeting with club chairmen at which the finer points of this new operation were to be discussed. When the subject of reducing to 18 clubs came up, clubs asked FA chairman Sir Bert Millichip whether this was mandatory.
Millichip’s response, “It’s your league, you decide”, may have been intended to refer to the matter of reducing the number of top-flight clubs only, but it was widely interpreted that this new league would be running itself, beholden to no-one. By the end of that meeting, the foundations of the new league would be in place, and the Premier League would have complete control of its own destiny. The FA may have seriously damaged the Football League, but they’d also ultimately sacrificed a degree of their own authority.
Two points within the ‘founders agreement’ would go on to shape the way in which the league operates, beyond any others. Firstly, the committees and executive control of the Football League would be a thing of the past; the clubs themselves would vote on matters relating to their governance, with a two-thirds majority required to effect any change. And secondly, the distribution of television money would be very different, with 50% to be split equally between the clubs, 25% according to the previous year’s league position, and 25% on the number of times a club appeared in live televised matches. Within a year, the Premier League would be a completely independent body, beholden to neither the Football League nor the FA. In seeking to cauterise what they considered the ‘threat’ of the Football League, the FA had handed a large amount of control at the top of the game to the biggest clubs.
But how much would all of this be worth? Nobody exactly knew, but it was expected that there would be two main contenders to take on these new television rights. ITV had, of course, been the driving force behind this breakaway, with their Head of Sport Greg Dyke having been involved in talks going back to 1988. But their main competition would not be the BBC, who would definitely not be able to go anywhere near matching the sort of offers that commercial broadcasters would make. Instead, the competition to ITV would come from a relatively new broadcaster who needed Premier League football as much as Premier League football wanted the money that they were prepared to pay.
Sky Television had first gone on-air on February 5 1989 with four channels, but it had not initially been expected that sport would be the main driver behind the growth of pay TV. Sky’s first encrypted channel, The Movie Channel, had become their first premium channel exactly a year later, but at the time Sky had been involved in a fierce battle to get exclusive movie rights from the major Hollywood studios with their competitor, British Satellite Broadcasting, and although these punishing negotiations had ended up benefitting Sky more than BSB, both companies were left bloodied by the sheer cost of signing these contracts.
Indeed, by the end of 1990 the two companies had merged as BSkyB, although such was the condition of BSB by this time that this ‘merger’ was really more of a takeover. But as BSB died, Sky was also haemorrhaging money and there were few guarantees of how long its owner Rupert Murdoch would keep throwing money at it. With the merger, BSB’s The Sport Channel had been brought into Sky’s stable, and on April 21 1991, just over two weeks after the announcement of the formation of the Premier League, it was rebranded as Sky Sports.
It was clear by this time that the Premier League was going to happen. The Football League had reacted to the announcement of the new league by heading straight to court, on the basis that their rules stated that clubs had to give three years’ notice in order to resign from the Football League. The League went on to lose this case at the High Court, and much of the 1991/92 season was spent sorting out finer details such as promotion and relegation for the start of the following season. But there was still one very important question left to answer: who would be the Premier League broadcast partner once the 1992/93 season began?
Broadcasters started preparing their bids for Premier League rights towards the end of 1991, with no-one entirely clear on who would end up as the front-runner. Despite the BSB merger, Sky still only had a tiny number of subscribers and all the effort and cost that had gone into signing exclusive contracts with studios for their movie channels had not resulted in much of a take-up from viewers. As late as October 1991, it had even been expected that the rights would end up being shared, with a Premier League working party suggesting that the rights could be divided between one live free-to-air game a week, one pay-TV game per week, one highlights programme each and one promotional magazine show on free-to-air.
Initial bids came from four parties – two of which came from groups that were considered to be non-starters, one of which hoped to set up a football-only pay-TV channel. ITV didn’t want to work with anyone else, meaning that the BBC joined Sky’s bid with the promise of a return to regular weekly highlights on Match Of The Day. Over the previous four years, they’d had been limited to the FA Cup only while ITV, believing highlights to be outdated, hadn’t bothered with them at all much beyond occasional regional broadcasts and cramming in the goals from every other First Division match into a five-minute slot during the weekend’s live match. New Premier League chief executive Rick Parry summed up the mood in a speech to the Football Writers Association in October 1991 when he mentioned that, “in the last deal ITV bought the entire product and didn’t use 90 per cent of it”.
ITV had a reputation for this. On April 21 1991 Sheffield Wednesday played Manchester United in the League Cup final at Wembley, but when Wednesday won the match 1-0 the city’s own regional ITV broadcaster, Yorkshire Television, cut away from the post-match celebrations to show something called War Of The Monster Trucks instead. Wednesday supporters considered this an example of pro-West Yorkshire and anti-South Yorkshire bias – there has been a long-running Sheffield Wednesday fanzine of that name – but more broadly, showing this lack of care towards the game highlighted that ITV hadn’t done a particularly good job with their exclusive deal with the Football League.
And on top of this, Sky had a man on the inside. Spurs chairman Alan Sugar, who through his Amstrad dish and receiver/decoder
manufacturing business had a vested interest in BSkyB’s bid, and was overheard on the night that the final decision was to be made, telling Sky’s pugnacious chief executive Sam Chisholm details of the ITV bid and urging Sky to “blow them out of the water”, which they duly did. ITV’s bid was £155m per year for 30 live matches, a modest increase on the amount of coverage that was already being shown. Sky’s was £191m for 60 live matches, which they puffed up with the BBC’s payments for highlights and expected overseas revenues (which were at the time about zero) to make a total bid expected to raise £304m a year, although it never actually did reach this amount.
When the clubs came to vote, they did so on the basis of self-interest. Four of the ‘Big Five’ clubs voted for ITV, along with Leeds United and Aston Villa, but two clubs abstained and the other 14 all voted for Sky, including Spurs. Those in favour of the ITV bid argued that what they considered to be ‘saturation coverage’ could negatively impact upon other commercial revenues, but this (frankly weak) argument couldn’t sway the vote. With the promise of more money and more coverage, the will of the biggest clubs was overturned and the Premier League opted to go with the new broadcasters instead. ITV took the matter to court but lost and signed a considerably weaker contract with the Football League instead. Eight clubs, unhappy with the way that the enthusiastically pro-Sky Parry had conducted himself, blocked a £3million sponsorship deal with the Bass brewery company, meaning that the FA Premier League would start its life without a main sponsor.
Posters starting appearing over the summer of 1992 advertising ‘a whole new ball game’, even as the England national team’s lacklustre performance at that summer’s European Championships in Sweden demonstrated that some things never really change. But things would be different in the Premier League. Sky Sports would be showing live matches at 4pm on Sunday afternoons and on Monday evenings, while Match of the Day returned on a weekly basis for the first time in four years. Referees would be wearing green and black, and both player names and squad numbers would follow on the backs of players’ shirts for the first time, a year later. Other attempts at innovation, such as the now-infamous Sky Strikers cheerleaders, would later be quietly forgotten. On that first weekend, Nottingham Forest beat Liverpool 1-0 in the first live televised Premier League match.
And more noticeably than anything else, that first Premier League season was played out against a backdrop of building sites. Manchester United, who ended that first season with a first English league championship in 26 years, did so in front of an average crowd of just 35,152 people, with the capacity of Old Trafford having been slashed so that urgent rebuilding work could be expedited. The average Premier League attendance in the first new season of that whole new ball game was 21,175. For the 2021/22 season, it was 39,472. In 1992 it was the loss of the terraces and the construction of new all-seater stands that was the break with the past that felt most sudden and absolute. The growth in inequality between clubs would take years to diffuse. The first season of the Premier League being played out against a backdrop of half-built stands was an immediate demonstration that things were going to be different.
The football of 1992 was obviously more closely related to that of 1982 than to that of 2022, and the Premier League didn’t reinvent everything overnight. But this was a great leap forward, after ten years of moving in this direction. ITV had tried to acquire exclusive rights in November 1978, only for the matter to draw such ire – questions were asked in parliament – that it earned the nickname ‘Snatch of the Day’ and was shelved. And by the time they finally got those exclusive rights a decade later, the seeds of the future of the game had been sewn. Matches were shown live on the television, while Spurs became the first club to become a public limited company in 1982. Sky Sports may well have marketed a whole new ball game in 1992, but the seeds for it had been sewn over the years building up to it.