It's slipped quietly by while the world discusses Gazza and Ginger Spice. In this summer
of personal disillusionment, Friday's decision
by Premiership chairmen to reject Sky's proposals for pay-per-view coverage of matches is
cause for cautious optimism.
The street party is on hold for the moment, of course. The idea that pressure from
fans had anything to do with the decision can be immediately dismissed, for a start. That wouldn't
be a case of a leopard changing its spots, more of a leopard turning into a fluffy-wuffy
bunny-wunny. In short, if fans were anywhere near the top of the list of chairmen's concerns,
television rights wouldn't have been sold to Rupert Murdoch in the first place.
So the revolution doesn't start here. But there are changes afoot and they may
well be to our benefit, albeit by a roundabout route.
Pay-per-view itself is probably still an inevitability - Premiership clubs don't exactly
have a history of turning their backs on cash cows. In some ways, its introduction
will be an irrelevancy - those of us who've resisted Sky subscriptions will have no less
coverage on our screens; those who've paid must be used to being shafted by now. It will
have knock-on effects, of course - such issues as the protection of away allocations and Saturday
kickoffs really ought to be the subjects of the Task Force's attention.
So, if we can discard concern for fans and absolute rejection of pay-per-view as motivations
for Friday's decision, what was the reason for such a surprising outcome? The likes of Martin Edwards (Manchester United) are not well known for happiness in
defeat. Yet they appeared happy on Friday. What's going on?
The first answer is the simplest, the one that doesn't dive into the inviting waters of conspiracy
theory. It is that Sky's plan was just not ready for implementation. It has some
credibility - there were obvious flaws in Murdoch's masterplan. For example, it doesn't take
a genius to work out that Arsenal's desire to have pay-per-view coverage only of games
away from Highbury could not be viable - short of playing all Premiership matches in the Outer
Hebrides, there will always be a home team and an away team.
It is possible that, despite the plan's backing from some of the big guns, chairmen
merely delayed their consent until certain details were worked out. But surely even
that fairly wishy-washy decision would've produced more in-fighting than appeared to be the
Let's have a look at the conspiracy theory, then. Sky's contract for Premiership coverage
expires in the not-too-distant future - three years from now, I believe. Whatever the
revenue generated, it is likely that far more could become available if Sky was by-passed
in favour of coverage owned and controlled by the clubs themselves. Here's the
theory about Friday: chairmen are distancing themselves from Murdoch in anticipation of the day when they
do it themselves.
It would explain a lot, particularly the sense of satisfaction that wafted my way from
Friday's meeting. It would also make extremely good business sense - especially
for the biggest clubs.
And it would present some very interesting opportunities for football fans. As someone
who believes that Sky's influence within the English game has been almost entirely
destructive, a devilish voice of encouragement inside chairmen's heads, the
removal of Murdoch from the equation would probably be cause enough for a street party.
Naturally, we would be presented with something almost as bad in its place. It is difficult
to imagine an immediate return to Saturday football - so, for example, we can't expect that the decline
of the FA Cup as a prestigious tournament will be halted nor that kickoff times will
become any more reasonable. Nor would any significant portion of the income be channelled into making
non-armchair fans' lives any easier.
But it would be an important break nonetheless. It is impossible to put any kind of
pressure for change on Rupert Murdoch's business empire - if the new Labour government, massive Commons
majority and all, recognises and
submits to his power, what chance have humble football fans got? When it comes to having
a say in the future of the game, how tiny and squeaky and inaudible are our voices when
placed next to Murdoch's?
Individual football clubs are hardly bastions of consultative democracy, obviously. Fans' voices are
frequently as tiny and squeaky and inaudible when placed next to those of directors and
chief executives. But, crucially, there is no reason why an elected government should be afraid
of such small-time dictators. The power hierarchy will have changed.
It's a thought, innit?