Return of football will only lift morale of a minority…

Apparently there are people in government who think the return of football on television, even if played behind closed doors, would be really good for public morale. Given their form on such matters I suspect what they really mean is that it may take some people’s minds off their fatal failures, but nonetheless, this is a view that has been around for a few weeks now.

Clearly, for a game or two, the novelty of it all might be distracting. Drinking games will start, downing a shot for every ‘f*ck’ heard, three for every ‘c*nt’ and five for every ‘f*cking c*nt’ that echoes across the bleak and silent stadia. But in our heart of hearts we know this faux football will be bloodless entertainment and is only being talked about because of that dirtiest of five letter words: money.

With the game in a state of financial necrosis (though even now still managing to wheelbarrow infeasible amounts of money into many player bank accounts, as their agents screaming protests against wage cuts echo down the marble halls of greed) there is a palpable panic as the game drifts downstream to the roaring waterfall of oblivion.

But will it actually cheer the nation up, or satiate some sport lust? After all, we do love a bit of kicky-kicky. The thing to understand about this is something which is counter to our default belief: football isn’t hugely popular. It is the most popular sport by far, and its brands – especially the Premier League – have reach and recognition, but if you add up how many people are watching football in person or on TV in any week, it is a small percentage of the population. The vast majority of the UK cares little or nothing about football. They’ll watch a one-off big event like a World Cup semi-final, but would rather claw their eyes out with a spoon than sit through Southampton v Newcastle United.

Be wary when you read propaganda which adds up all attendances and declares that 13.6 million people went to a Premier League game in 2017, for example. This is an aggregate figure, not the actual number of people. The aggregate will, especially with football, count the same person multiple times. Finding out how many different individuals went to a season’s games is hard to do for practical reasons, but would be the true measure of football’s popularity.

As I’ve written about many times and in my book Can We Have Our Football Back?, TV viewing figures are similarly opaque as a measure of football’s popularity. Again, it’s important to beware of propaganda. The Premier League tells us that 70% of the population watched the Premier League in 2018/19 on Sky, BTSport and MOTD. In a country of over 66 million people, that’s 46 million. That is meant to sound impressive and prove popularity. But ‘watched’ is the significant and slippery word in this statement.

In TV research, ‘watched’ means someone who has seen three consecutive minutes of a programme. 46 million people watching at least three minutes of football across nine months is significantly less impressive. I don’t watch EastEnders but I saw five minutes once in the last 12 months, so I am a viewer and those five minutes are spun into being an interest that I don’t have. My partner is, in the same way, a viewer of the Premier League because she watched five minutes of one game over Christmas, but has no interest at all in the game. Quite the opposite.

So even the day-to-day viewing figures need to be seen in that context. If a game is said to have a million viewers, that’s an average; in reality it could have anything from a low of 600k to a high of 1.4 million as people drift in and out of watching. And again, as you only need to see three minutes to be counted, many fundamentally disinterested people are in those numbers.

MOTD’s Saturday night viewing figures are typically 3-4 million people, Sky’s typically 500,000 to 2 million for a live game, BTSport under 200,000 to 750,000, but we can’t just add these up and come to a total interested audience. Many will watch all or most football broadcasts and thus are counted time and again. And if we’re trying to assess degrees of interest, that is even more nebulous. Some are watching intently for the whole game, others are dozing on and off.

Clearly, paywall TV suppresses audiences radically and it has also reduced interest in football per se, by privatising access. So let’s take MOTD’s coverage of cup games as a benchmark. A big game between two big clubs will usually land around eight million for the BBC. It has got much bigger audiences for huge games like England’s Women’s World Cup semi-final, but they’re outliers, at least for now. Of that eight million, a significant number will be casual viewers for whom football is of little importance.

Around a million people go to a game in any week, but they’ll likely be counted in TV viewership.

Taking all this into account, if there are six million hardcore football fans in the UK I’d be surprised. So about 10% of the population.

Thus if football returns to TV in the new proposed perverted form, the truth is that not even one in ten of the country will care to any degree at all. The idea that the morale of the lockdown nation will be elevated is absurd. More likely it will outrage and depress most of the public (and many dedicated fans) as they see football going about its amoral, mammon-driven, self-obsessed business inside a moral vacuum of its own making, while death and distress pervades the land.

Is that what they want? Or don’t they care?

John Nicholson