Rights and Wrongs: TV Traumas Overshadow English Football Fervour

The football season — the soccer season, that is — began in August in England amid an ever-swelling tide of hyperbole as sport, that great vehicle of social democracy in the latter decades of the 19th century, becomes a postmodern amalgam of Greek heroism and financial skullduggery, ethics and aesthetics melded to sex scandals, drug outrage and rock soundtracks. Television rights have just switched hands in the UK. The ad-free BBC, after more than 35 years of virtually uninterrupted Saturday evening match highlights, has been outbid by ITV. The grouping of commercial companies and the vast figures involved in the deal mean that the new heirs to the televised game have got to make maximum impact. Reputations are on the line: the viewing figures have to stack up.

But on the first weekend, as ITV presented an early evening Saturday show, the biggest media story concerned the comfortable ratings victory achieved by their rivals. And how did the Beeb steal ITV’s thunder? The answer almost takes on the quality of the obvious. A special edition of Anne Robinson’s The Weakest Link gathered its eight contestants from recent reality TV shows to win the first bout of what is going to be a running battle. Women, it seems, who had become used to the early Saturday night diet of Blind Date and Stars in Their Eyes, were now ruling the remote and therefore football’s largest transfer had not been an immediate hit.

Sadly, the actual sporting dimensions of the opening weekend were largely drowned in the broadcasting debates surrounding the game. Yet once, and not so long ago, football in England was largely untainted by the issues of rights, digital, terrestrial or otherwise. (Note that the top Welsh teams play in England, Scotland has its own league and so does Northern Ireland.) Not that football was without its structural problems; it was just that traditionalists were able, for many years, to resist the modernisers and the moneymen.

While football in England began as a sport pursued by the public school privileged, the 1890s saw the arrival of professionalism, something that no gentlemen would entertain. Thus, the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign saw the game increasingly dominated by the urban proletariat as both players and spectators. In Birmingham, Aston Villa were the great team of the day; in Manchester, a collection of railways workers were creating a club called Newton Heath that would, by the start of the new century, become Manchester United.

The next 60 years, despite being punctured by two world wars, would see football become the greatest sporting draw in the country. Crowds of 70,000 and more would clamour to see the top teams; Huddersfield in the 1920s and Arsenal in the 1930s. Ticket prices were low and attendances across several divisions — there were four leagues inter-linked by promotion and relegation by the 1950s — were vast, running close to 40 million a season. Attendance was boosted in the late 1940s by the euphoria of peace in Europe.

Yet there was an extraordinary anomaly: while crowds poured in to watch their athletic gods deliver the goods, the players themselves were absurdly under-rewarded. A maximum wage meant that top-level entertainers were taking home around £10 a week — perhaps only £200 or $350 dollars in current day values. The discrepancy between massive takes on the gate and the amount paid out to the footballers has never been explained away, especially as other rules stated that directors of football clubs could not be paid at all.

In the early 1960s, when players threatened to strike to defeat the maximum wage cap, the system was eventually thrown out. Yet it would take around 30 years for the real commercial potential of this sleeping giant to be tapped. In 1992, the top football clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and others, quit the national tournament (the Football League), to forge the Premiership. The decision left around 70 teams from the lower divisions to largely fend for themselves. The arrival of lucrative television rights deals meant that the big boys wanted to cream off the lion’s share of the profits rather than share the income with their poorer cousins.

The story was further complicated by the European dimension. Since the mid-1950s, several continent-wide tournaments had brought together successful clubs from Iceland to Turkey, and Finland to Cyprus. By the 1990s, however, this utopian network of sporting friendship had also fallen prey to the demands of the marketplace. The four nations with the strongest club set-ups, Italy, Germany, Spain and England, were also anxious to exploit Euro TV rights. The parochial debates about control of the game and the roles of the broadcasters were now taking on a global dimension. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was not only the country’s biggest media magnate; he also owned their most prized club, AC Milan. In England, the Australian-turned-American, Rupert Murdoch, endeavoured to secure the most dazzling jewel in the game’s crown: Manchester United.

Furthermore, the most significant club competitions, particularly in Italy, Spain and England, became magnets for the world’s talents. The top players from Brazil, Argentina, African countries and Asia, too, flocked to play in Turin, Madrid and London. English club teams like the capital-based Chelsea formed glittering squads drawn from France, Italy, Norway and Nigeria; it was rare for British-born players to make the starting line-up.

Against this background, pre-war stadiums now re-emerged as steel and glass cathedrals, top players made several million pounds a year, entrance fees rose astronomically, transfer fees rocketed even more dramatically, and major corporations from News International to Coca Cola, the new sponsors of the Premiership in England for season 2001/02, strove to exploit every cash-producing opportunity. This is all well exemplified by the ongoing wrangles this summer over TV contracts that threaten to deny British viewers free access to World Cup coverage when the international showpiece takes place in Germany in 2002.

The “people’s game”, once called, has been re-shaped as the billionaires’ bonanza. Long-standing associations between football clubs and local communities — the idea that Liverpudlian lads played for Liverpool and Everton, and were supported by Liverpudlian lads and lasses — has been fatally undermined. The most powerful of the clubs built bigger, better stadia, charged higher prices for admission, and paid out higher transfer fees and bigger wages. The smaller teams found it harder and harder to make an impression. The result is that football fans in marginal areas, such as North Wales or the West Country, offer their allegiance, and their money, to the likes of Manchester United or Arsenal.

Meanwhile, opportunities for English-born players drastically shrink as the stars of Croatia, the Czech Republic and Denmark — who for reasons never fully explained are invariably superior as purveyors of the game’s key technical skills — take the places of local talent. And thus the road to globalisation rolls on. As Ruud van Nistelrooy scores for Manchester United, as Sander Westerveld saves in the Liverpool goal, the multi-national flavour of the game is obvious. But such micro-details are of passing concern. It is the macro that focuses minds: the TV ratings, the advertising earnings, the need to control and manage small screen access to matches, are now actually far more important than the players themselves. England and Europe have not yet become the grotesque display of US sports entertainment — the brazen banalities of the World Wrestling Foundation, for instance — but the contemporary vision of football is much closer to achieving this than most of us could ever have feared.