Football can curb TV, says Alex Fynn

TV camera at QPR's Loftus RoadPA

Football can and should redress the balance of power between the game and its TV paymasters. That's the view of football consultant Alex Fynn* who was speaking in the wake of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's comments that "television is God at the moment'.
Fynn reckons football was slow to realise its true value, and has an innovative suggestion for how the sport could reconfigure its relationship with TV for the good of the game. That suggestion may just chime with other trends in the televised sporting arena.

But first, what did Ferguson say? He reckons "when you shake hands with the devil you pay the price"" and made further observations about how fixture lists are pulled around at the behest of the TV schedulers. He called the variety of kick-off times "ridiculous" and said there was "no chance" managers would pick them.

Sky TV

For Fynn, it's the game itself that is to blame for the influence now exercised by the TV companies.
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"Sky's ability to change football was made possible by the fact that they were simply smarter than the people running football"

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"Sky's ability to change football was made possible by the fact that they were simply smarter than the people running football" he says bluntly.

"Sky knew why football was important to them. The football clubs didn't, and by the time they did realise, Sky had disappeared over the horizon after having refashioned the game in terms of its agenda." It's 20 years since Sky began to cover football in the UK, and any consideration of the changes in the game since then cannot fail to acknowledge the breadth of change.

Ferguson's comments have prompted some to respond that his own club has done very nicely indeed out of the TV deals. This is true, but that fact should not prevent him questioning the balance of power between the core activity, sport, and the channels through which it is broadcast.

It's worth noting, too, that the BBC interviewer did not raise the matter of why, if TV was God, Ferguson had managed to maintain a refusal to speak to any BBC outlet for eight years because he hadn't liked what was said in a documentary about his son.

Global market

There's no denying TV has been hugely important for football, but it's also true that sport is hugely important for TV, not just in the UK, but globally. Jeff Zucker, the former chief executive of US network NBC Universal told the Financial Times earlier this year that: "Broadcasting right now is about event television, live television, sports events."

French media group Lagardère says media revenues now make up 35%, €16bn, of a €45bn global sports market that has grown by an average of 6% every year since 2005. And Dave Fox, CEO of Fox Sports, says: "Sports rights are the one rock on which you can build a media edifice".

Put simply, sport brings in massive ratings and the viewers are the ones advertisers want to target. That's why the channels are prepared to pay so much for the rights to sport. And building a "media edifice" around a sports offering means that some channels even use sport as a loss leader.

Downturn

But, especially in times of global economic downturn, the amount that consumers have to spend on the products advertised and the amount they are prepared to pay to watch sport is squeezed, and loss leaders are even less attractive. All of which raises an interesting opportunity if we consider Fynn's suggestion.

His view is based on the observation that "sport as a live event is important, but more important is that it is a TV spectacular". He goes on: "Football is cost effective and it is superior entertainment, because the thing about sport is that you don't know what's going to happen."

Tender touch

So, he says, if he was heading football's negotiating team next time the TV rights come up for renewal; "I wouldn't tender it. If you tender you prioritise money over content and control. I'd say to the TV companies, 'We have the game, what is it that we can do that you want?'"

This subtly but importantly changes the balance of power, with the game firmly in charge. "There may be less money, but more control," says Fynn. He illustrates the point by saying: "Sunday lunchtime and Monday night games don't protect or enhance the game. If we went back to a more regimented fixture list, however, that would enhance the game and be popular with supporters."

It would be easy to dismiss the possibility of this ever happening, because the game has traditionally just accepted the biggest cheque. But with the squeeze meaning less money could be available, the ability of the TV companies to bulldoze a deal is reduced. So for the bold football administrator, opportunity knocks.

*Alex Fynn is the consultant who worked on the FA's Blueprint for Football, which led to the formation of the Premier League. The book he wrote alongside Kevin Whitcher, Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, is widely regarded as a classic study of the football business.

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