Monday, March 29, 2010

Rights and Wrongs

Good grief – the government has outlined ambitious plans to reform football, and they look pretty good to me – remove vested interests from the FA, encourage supporter ownership of clubs. The Premier League in particular will hate it, because they believe their model needs no justification beyond the fact that it makes lots of money and they resist anything which might break the magic money-making spell.

It’s interesting that the government should unveil left-leaning proposals which are sure to be unpopular with football’s governing bodies, because I’d just been thinking about how those governing bodies – along with those of rugby and cricket – had reacted to Ofcom’s challenge to the Sky monopoly. They’ve trotted out their standard protest about how any interference in the free-market model will harm their ability to fund their sports at ‘grassroots level’: a whinge which reminds me very strongly of how right-wingers respond to any tax rise by saying it will ‘hit hard-working families’ to cover for the fact that it actually means less money for the rich. The pay-TV market has resulted in the governing bodies of sport becoming gripped with a right-wing ideology, and unfortunately we can’t vote them out.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about rugby and cricket in this context, and they are undoubtedly less well-off than football. (Although the ECB has again proved itself just as adept as the FA at talking bollocks, stating that ‘Ofcom has failed to understand that cricket fans want to watch a successful product.’ I’ll wager no cricket fan has EVER looked forward to sitting down and watching a successful product. Don’t call it a ‘product’, you pricks.) But it seems odd that the FA needs vast pots of cash to fund the ‘grassroots game’ when the ‘grassroots game’ seemed in somewhat better health back before football got so rich. Perhaps the main reason it needs support now is precisely because football is so rich at the highest levels these days, the grassroots are in danger of being forgotten – in which case the FA’s argument is circular. Money is both the problem and the solution – and if the ‘grassroots game’ is so important, let’s give it a bigger slice of the pie and redress the balance.

It’s now abundantly clear to everyone that the game is unsustainably over-inflated, with an absurd proportion of income spent on players’ wages (I was startled to find a ten-year-old interview with Teddy Sheringham in which he expresses disbelief that some players are getting paid £20,000 per week). The argument that the Premier League needs all this money won’t wash any more. The sports bodies’ desperate plea that the poor are the ones who will really suffer from a slight reduction in the billions washing around football will get little traction, I feel.

Anyway, I’m going to add my own modest proposal to the government’s: my idea for how to sell football TV rights. There was a move in the European courts to preserve competition and avoid the monopoly situation Sky was developing, but it was a ridiculous dog’s-breakfast situation and led to the Setanta disaster, where an attempt to offer ‘value’ to the consumer resulted in the consumer saying ‘No thanks’ to the prospect of shelling out for two subscriptions in order to watch the same amount of matches. If you really want to avoid monopolies, this is what I suggest.

Lump all the major football rights together and assign each chunk of it a value based on how many live matches each one provides and how high-profile those matches are – so, for example, whilst the Football League would provide more matches than getting the rights to cover all England’s games, each England game would pull in more viewers and hence would be worth more. Let’s say, I dunno, the Premier League counts for 30% of All Live Football, the Football League 10%, the Champions League 15%, the Europa League 10%, England 15%, the FA Cup 15% and the League Cup 5%. Or something. Please don’t argue with the specific numbers, they’re semi-arbitrary. (I’d leave major international tournaments out of this, because they’re not part of the regular season.)

Then you’d set a level which was the most football any broadcaster could have at any one time; 50% would seem a sensible level. Broadcasters could launch joint bids if they wanted, and you’d keep all the protected free-to-air events free-to-air. I suppose that could lead to a situation where Sky blows all its wad on the Premier League and puts itself out of the running for the Football League, meaning competition for that would be mild, therefore making the wealth gap between the divisions yet more massive. Also, there’s a potential problem in the fact that rights periods overlap with act other. So how about bringing them all into line? All rights contracts start at the same time and are bid for at the same time, so nobody knows who’s bidding for what. If a broadcaster wins more events than they’re allowed, they have to choose some to pull out of and those ones go to the second-highest bidder.

All right, there’d probably be reasons why you couldn’t do it. Even if there aren’t, the various rights holders would make some up because it would mean making less money. But ultimately, this is only a blog post and mostly exists for me to air my opinions and claim some nebulous moral high ground. It’s not going to HAPPEN.