The 2010s: When broadcast quality went up and viewers went down

Date published: Monday 30th December 2019 12:19

A decade of football has got behind us. Is ten years a long time? Well if you’re now 20, they’ll have seemed to take an eternity to pass. Ten years ago you were in junior school; now look at you all grown-up! This decade took you from child to adult and all the physical and emotional turmoil that goes with that transition. It might not seem like it, but in 20 or 30 years, you’ll likely look back fondly at these years. Enjoy them while you can.

If you’re now 30, you’ll find it hard to believe that the decade started with you in your second year at college and ends with you in your third job and your second big relationship. You thought you’d have bought a house by now, eh?

If you’re now 40, you finally left your childhood behind along with your first marriage, started hating modern pop music but began pretending to like slightly too tight modern fashions to try and feel relevant and sexually attractive.

If you’re now 50, this decade will have passed the way one year did when you were a teenager. It marked the time you stopped knowing what was No. 1 in the charts and you found yourself looking up old girl and boyfriends on Facebook while feeling melancholic for the passing of time and wondering what might have been.

If you’re now 60 it passed in the blink of an eye. You’ve spent half the decade wondering why girls are shaving off their eyebrows and painting cartoonish ones back in. Kids stopped annoying you and you started worrying for their future. You spent a lot of time protesting to them that you’re not like one of those selfish, blinkered, narrow-minded, bigoted 60-year-olds who still wish it was 1959. It now takes you all night to do what you used to do all night.

If you’re 70 and above, you’re just glad and a little surprised to wake up every morning and still get shocked that when you fill out opinion polls you have to tick the very bottom age group on the list. You find yourself remembering detailed things from 55 years ago but have no idea what you did yesterday.

When it comes to football, it’s been a decade of change in styles of play and broadcasters but the same clubs have largely been the ones picking up the silverware. Chelsea won the Premier League three times, Manchester City took it home four, Manchester United won it twice, Leicester City once and it ends with Liverpool purring, halfway towards a memorable victory. Chelsea won three FA Cups, as did Arsenal; Manchester City bagged two and Manchester United one, leaving just Wigan in 2013 to break the well-established hegemony. The League Cup was a little more varied but City still won four, United two, Chelsea, Birmingham, Swansea and Liverpool once each. The word ‘predictable’ has never had more currency.

Leicester City’s utterly wonderful title win still gives a sliver of hope to clubs outside of the established Big Six that they have a point to their existence beyond trying to finish seventh and might follow their lead one season. Is it realistic? Probably not, but slim chance is the only chance 14 clubs ever have each season. This has created an existential crisis for fans of those clubs when the only thing they’re playing for is the right to do it all over again next year, who barely even try to achieve anything else. All of which is exactly why many feel the Premier League is so dysfunctional and unsatisfactory. “It’s all about money these days,” is now the mantra of the common people.

TV broadcasters have changed a little. We started the decade with Sky and ESPN sharing the game, Setanta having just gone boom. In 2013 BT Sport replaced ESPN and latterly Amazon have dipped their toe in. Sky was sold to Comcast a year ago. Its virility as a brand has been wedded to football for 27 years. Will its new owners feel it’s worth continuing to pay out so much money to show football to an average global audience per game of just 10 million on a planet of 7.7 billion people? When Comcast bought Sky it was stated they had 23 million European subscribers (not to the football but in total) in a continent of 741 million people that seemed small, even allowing for an average of three people per household subscription. With the CEO of beIN declaring they are are all massively overpaying for rights that are so widely bootlegged for free, are the days of paywall football coming to an end?

Across the decade audience numbers for live football behind a paywall have remained stubbornly unimpressive for the most popular sport in the country. Sky broadcast 128 games in 2018/19; 112 of them did not attract two million people to watch for three consecutive minutes or more. BT Sport’s peak audience is 1.7 million, but more typically orbits the 500,000 mark. Illegal streaming has become a way of life. The vast majority of football lovers still will not pay to watch football on TV, just as at the start of the decade.

And it’s not just reluctance to pay to see the Premier League. For the first half of the last ten years, the Champions League was on ITV as well as Sky, now it has been hived off behind BT Sport’s paywall (its Goals Show is totally brilliant, innovative and inspiring and a beacon into future darkness) and few are watching until the latter stages and even then compared to the glory days of Clive and Andy, they are anemic numbers.

UEFA say they’re worried at the disenfranchisement of fans from its primo competition, but they’re not worried enough to stop taking big bids from paywall broadcasters, ensuring it will continue. As the competition hardens into the same predictable group of qualifiers from the same countries, ten years ago it was far more glamorous and attractive than it is now. And while it delivered some of the most thrilling football last season in the latter stages, the competition as a whole lacks jeopardy and is too predictable for too long.

When it comes to the quality of broadcasting, in these ten years we’ve seen the rise of the well-informed pundit who has actually done work for the gig and, except for a couple of instances, the sidelining of the roister doister, leg-squeezer geezer ex-player who just turned up, spoke in cliches and went home richer for the pleasure. 2011 was the year things began to change with the whole Keys and Gray debacle and the inevitable use – not for the first time – of The Banter Defence. Allegedly widely disliked within the business and left out to dry when the sh*t hit the fan precisely because of that fact, it only seemed appropriate that they end the decade as apologists for an oppressive regime and Keys is, as Marina Hyde has written, “the Lord Haw-Haw of Qatar”.

Since 2010, all broadcasters have improved in their analysis of the game. The irony of paywall football TV is that despite it being at an all-time high in quality, they still can’t get big numbers to watch it. But while football on TV is a great product, 5 live has become the gold standard, seven days a week, for any football lover. talkSPORT is also becoming essential listening if you pick and choose well. Radio is still where you find the best pictures.

All channels do a better job than was once the case but there is still too much use of the ex-player in the dissection of live football. The rise in recent years of the football writer and journalist as media performer has been almost wholly positive and points a direction for the future.

Compared to 2010, women are now widely employed to talk about men’s football and commentate on it – a seemingly small change but one which 15 years ago was considered, by far too many, beyond the pale. Of course the sky didn’t fall in and it turned out to be a 100% positive thing, as many of us knew it would be. The fact it took so long to happen was shameful and those who, even now, stand against it behind their anonymous Twitter accounts, still need slapping down from time to time. Whether we have won the sexism war, or merely a major battle, is yet to become clear.

In the last decade, the huge growth in popularity and profile of women’s football, especially at international level, has been little short of amazing and thoroughly enjoyable. The fact it has encouraged greater participation in the sport proved just how important free-to-air access to football is and how it can shape society for the better, making people happier and healthier and in the process saving the state a huge amount of money on various medications. The men’s game should take note and follow suit for the exact same reasons.

At a time of a Type 2 diabetes crisis which costs £14 billion per year and rising, and when 71.5 million prescriptions for antidepressants are being written out at a cost of half a billion quid, anyone who tells me the state couldn’t pay for football rights, ‘list’ them, making live football available to 95% of the population free-to-air and make it revenue neutral within three years via better health outcomes, is a bloody liar. We just need a government to understand the profundity of this and uncouple themselves from a free-market obsession which is destroying the people, the country and the very earth upon which we rely for our existence. Yeah, that’s all. Trust me, I’m working on it.

But while broadcasters have embraced more progressive values in recent years, sadly men’s football still has a problem with establishing a culture within which you can be openly gay and it not be A Big Thing, just as it did in 2010. Little has changed. It’s just part of regular, normal life in the women’s game and part of regular normal life in so many families. Can’t we just get over this? However, fear of the noisy male bantersaur(i) who makes all our lives worse in so many ways is to blame for suppressing further change in the men’s game with their peculiar psychological bullying and need to denigrate to soothe their own self-loathing. But if Graeme Souness is anything to go by, perhaps even the most alpha lions in the pride are now more empathetic than ever to the cause. Perhaps someone told him that in 1980 he used to look like a character from an Armistead Maupin novel and that it was a very good look indeed. A change is going to come. It’s just a matter of when. Let it be soon.

The last ten years has seen the vast, all-pervasive blooming of betting companies involved in football. Now interwoven in sponsorship deals at every level of the game, high to low, on the pitch, in broadcasting, in the media and all over the players’ shirts and club stadiums, football is intravenously hooked into gambling money as part of its financial life support machine. It has ruined many lives and will ruin many more. A better way to fund football exists but requires an entirely different economic model and holistic understanding of society to become a reality. Someone should write a book about how to do that.

John Nicholson – part two of this decade in review is here. Tune in for part three tomorrow


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