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We don’t work for Sky Sports anymore

02/15/2015

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The telly was on in Torquay United’s packed social club last Saturday afternoon but no one was remotely interested in Spurs v Arsenal. Whilst the match that would no doubt dominate Home Counties office banter the following Monday burbled on in the background, pints were being sunk and songs of Mancunian pride filled the air. “We don’t work for Sky Sports anymore” boomed one of the songs proudly celebrating the fact that as fans of FC United of Manchester we no longer arrange our match going lives around Sky’s television schedules. Torquay fans, unused to seeing their tidy Boots & Laces supporters’ club quite so rowdy and well populated gazed on slightly bemused by it all. Inside the ground the support from the 1,400 away fans at the Babbacombe End was throat shreddingly relentless. Proper old fashioned football support.

A few days later news reached us from another football planet. The Premier League announced that the rights to show matches on the telly for the three seasons from 2016 had been sold for an eye watering £5.1 billion. Five point one bloody billion pounds, an increase of more than seventy percent on the last deal. Sky apparently paid £4.2 billion for five of the seven packages of matches on offer with BT coughing up nearly £1m for the other two packages. This means that it costs, on average, a staggering £10.2 million to screen one Premier League football match.

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To put this into perspective, FC United’s new Broadhurst Park ground, when it is opened, will have cost in the region of £6.5 million to build and kit out with more than £2.5 million of that raised by supporters through an innovative community shares scheme and donations to the development fund over the last ten years. Ordinary supporters giving what they can of their hard earned. No sugar daddies here. Ten years we’ve grafted for that ground yet apparently it’s worth only a fraction of the cost of screening Leicester v Stoke. Think of the good that could be done with the billions of pounds of TV money not only in football but in wider society. For the cash strapped NHS it would probably fund about twenty decent sized district general hospitals for a whole year. That’s everything; doctors, nurses, therapists, support staff, drugs, heating, lighting, electricity, the lot.

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League’s odious head honcho prattled on about “market forces” and the exciting unpredictability of “the product”. The battle for supremacy between a Russian oligarch’s club and one funded by the Abu Dhabi royal family seemingly something to get the pulse racing. What a footballing time to be alive. In addition Scudamore reckoned, without a trace of irony, that some of the television cash would be invested in “youth development and good causes” as well as improvements to grounds and facilities. Completely oblivious to the fact that the failed Thatcherite experiment with trickle down economics went out with acid wash jeans and mullets in the eighties.

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Browsing through some old United programmes recently I came upon a few from early in the 1992-93 season. The Premier League had been launched as “a whole new ball game” with BSkyB blowing their rivals away with a £304 million bid to screen the first five seasons of the Premier League exclusively. Each programme included a one page puff piece called “Premier League News” with words of wisdom from its chief executive Rick Parry. Amidst the propaganda were some absolute gems. The new money would apparently “strengthen grassroots football” and the reduction in the number of top division sides to twenty would “give the England national team a better chance of tournament success”. Parry also reckoned that “fans’ convenience is a priority with the Premier League”.

Tucked inside one of the programmes was a ticket from Manchester United’s away match at Arsenal in February 1992 (I know that’s the season before but my filing system is rubbish). Eight quid it cost to stand on the Clock End terrace at Highbury. At the equivalent fixture last November United fans were asked to shell out eight times that much for a seat in the away end at the Emirates. That’s some rate of inflation. So much for prioritising the concerns of fans.

In contrast, the latest TV deal is cracking news for multi-millionaire football club owners, players and agents. But whilst players at the top clubs are often paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week the very same football clubs shamefully refuse to pay those who serve the pies, clean the toilets or operate the turnstiles a living wage. Back in November 2011 the Living Wage Foundation asked Premier League clubs to pay all their workers (and sub-contractors) a fair wage of £7.85 per hour (or £9.15 in London). Not much to ask you would have thought when you pocket tens of millions of pounds of TV revenue per year? But more than three years later only Chelsea of all the clubs in the Premier League have committed to it. FC United of Manchester were the first football club in the country to pay the living wage.

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There is an alternative to all of this that prioritises fans and the wider community. FC United of Manchester are in the vanguard of the movement for supporter owned football clubs, leading from the front not only when it comes to the likes of paying a living wage and offering pay what you can afford season tickets but also in challenging the notion that football is merely part of the entertainment industry, a “product” to be consumed primarily sat on your arse at home or in the pub watching it on a screen.

At the club’s annual general meeting in November 2012 members voted overwhelmingly to ban the club from paying for Sky TV or any other pay per view television channels. More than three quarters of members who voted expressed their desire that the club should not contribute a penny to the Murdoch empire. So when the new ground opens at the end of this season, unlike almost any other football ground in the country, there will be no Sky TV. It was a proud moment for the club and sent out an emphatic message that we do not wish to play any part in the whole Premier League gravy train. We do things differently at FC and next season instead of gawping at an idiot lantern we’ll hopefully be enjoying a pre-match feast of music, comedy, theatre, poetry and veggie hotdogs out of a kettle again. You can stuff your television billions. FCUM. We don’t work for Sky Sports anymore.

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