Sunday, 5 July 2015

The inevitably of the Premier League TV Schedules

To add to the list of peculiarities of modern football is the publication of the English Premier League's televised live matches. Much like the running order of Match Of The Day, the decision as to what team gets televised when and how, provokes the ire of some fans.

It is a fact that the Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool will get more airtime than Leicester, Stoke or Sunderland this season. And in turn those bigger clubs get more money for making more appearances. The inequity is clear and critics are right to ask, how can smaller clubs hope to catch up with the bigger clubs if the bigger clubs get more exposure and more money?

Were the broadcasters to answer this question it's likely that they would say that it is only reasonable to show the better teams with better players because that's more entertaining. They might also point out that bigger clubs have larger fan bases, many of whom subscribe to their sports channel so they are simply responding to a commercial imperative.

Of course to what extent that's truly an answer depends entirely upon your ideological approach to football. In any event, football clubs have, for better or worse, elected to enter into a partnership with broadcasters in order to earn lots of money. Far more money than they could hope to earn through the turnstiles.

The upside is the aforementioned wedge. The down side is the  biased coverage towards the bigger clubs and the loss of dignity in being used as a marketing tool between rival broadband suppliers, SKY and BT. A bit like Game of Thrones only with moderately less sex and violence.

Many people take issue with the scheduling of matches for the benefit of TV audiences. This is something that elicits sympathy and for good reason.

However, the shifting work patterns and social commitments in the UK means that an increasing number of people can't go to Premier League matches on Saturday afternoons. There are also other reasons for not being able to get to games, not least of which is the price of entry and inaccessibility for the disabled.

Shifting matches outside the Saturday afternoon embargo to accommodate TV coverage maybe commercially driven but it does give folk who can't get to games on a Saturday a chance to watch. Arguably, far more than the smaller number of away supporters who will miss out.

Looking at it that way you could argue that televised football is good for fans and that a balance has been struck between scheduling for TV and remaining faithful to the traditional kick off time of 3pm on a Saturday.

That is of course assuming people can afford the subscription prices and that they support a team that regularly appears on the telly. Supporters of Leicester, Stoke or Sunderland may not see much value in their SKY or BT subscription. Not to mention those who support non Premier League clubs.

Access to watch games has been an issue for supporters from the old days when kids would peer over the fence to today where people who are working, poor or  can't otherwise enter the ground. We live in a period of the game's story where we can watch more top class professional football than ever before. The pay off is that it's expensive and the scheduling and choice of matches is left largely to broadcasters and their narrow commercial needs.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Will the Lionesses give English football an extra bounce?

Beyond catching the odd game on BT Sport, I started watching the Women's World Cup with very little knowledge of the women’s game.  I have deliberately approached the tournament from the perspective of a newbie. That is eager to learn and slow to judge. As a consequence I've enjoy the football immensely and celebrate its differences from the men's game.

Not that there are too many. Women are as physical as men to my eye. I've detected somewhat less cynical play (glossing over Steph Houghton's penalty in the semi-final) but they players are certainly not frightened of leaving something on their opponents. The ball doesn't travel as far as it does in the men's game but that in itself can encourage passing football and a reluctance to play with a high defensive line which leaves more space.

And of course there has been England. Unfancied but improving England who had yet to win a knock out game in a World Cup. Thanks to coach Mark Sampson's tactics, squad rotation and a teeny blessing from the draw, the lionesses have done a good deal more than that. Also, with the BBC showing all the World Cup games live and the latter England games of the flagship BBC 1 channel, the nation has taken notice of their progress to the third place play off.

Back in England the FA Women's Super League clubs will be anxious to find if the Lionesses success on the 3G fields of Canada will translate into increased attendance figures at Manchester, Lincoln, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest of the clubs that make up the 2 divisions of the WSL. The 2014 season recorded an average attendance of 728 (Source: The FA). This was a significant on the 562 in 2013 but is comparable to tier 6 in the men's game. The medium term aim must surely be to get attendances up to over 1000 for WSL 1 at least. Indeed some may find that to be a modest ambition.

The good news is that the WSL will be resuming their season almost immediately after the World Cup. The opportunity is there to strike while the iron is hot. The bean counters will be examining the attendance figures and TV ratings closely for a bump.

It will also be interesting to see how many, if any, professional men's clubs seek to increase investment  in their own women's teams or partner clubs on the back of England's success. How soon will it be before there is a clamour to expand the WSL to accommodate clubs eager to step up their commitments for their own commercial interests? How soon before Manchester United decide to launch their own women's football club? If and when they do they're hardly going to start from the bottom.

Were women's football to suddenly blossom then its administrators may find themselves confronted with some fresh challenges.  In turn they may have to make some difficult choices as new and more powerful interests become stakeholders.

You may recall when Doncaster Rover Belles were forcibly relegated in 2013 so as to accommodate Manchester City Women. City posted the highest average attendances in their debut season in 2014 suggesting that their place in the top tier is merited. This would be justification to bump smaller clubs out of the league for more well healed newcomers.

Get ready also for the misogyny.  The dinosaurs who think women should be serving pies rather then curling free kicks. Look out also for unflattering pictures of England players entering and leaving night clubs on click bait website anxious to judge them, not on the ability to play football but on their sexuality. Such is the burden that all women athletes must carry.

But let's not dwell on the negatives. Rather let's embrace what we hope will be a golden age of the women's game. In fact let's stop calling it 'women's football' and call it just football instead. After all the beautiful game should know no gender.