Tag Archives: TV Sport

Murdoch to Hammer Another Nail Into Football’s Coffin?

Uncle Rupert

Uncle Rupert

News is emerging that Rupert Murdoch may be about to unveil a “Summer Super League” plan for football, whereby 16 “elite” clubs would compete in a league-type competition throughout the traditional European close season.  Matches would be played in cities around the world in a transparent move to open up new markets and further popularise the Sky/Murdoch brand before an international audience possibly running to billions.

The drawbacks to such a plan spring readily to mind.  There is an obvious issue around the physical and mental demands upon players who might now be called upon to perform without a break in the whole calendar year.  That is, assuming that the players involved would be the senior players of the “elite” clubs envisaged as making up this league; but that does seem a fair assumption.  It is hardly likely that a project like this would have the necessary appeal and marketability if the competing teams were to field development squads – stars would be a pre-requisite for success.

What, then would be the impact on existing competitions?  It would be easy to imagine that the effect on, say, domestic cups could be quite shattering.  We’ve already had the precedent of Man U withdrawing from the FA Cup one season for some money-making prestige junket to South America where they competed for a version of the World Club Championship, and predictably sank without trace.  If the likes of Man U, Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal were to be invited (as they most certainly would be) to compete in Murdoch’s latest commercial fandango, then we could quite probably predict that – at the very least – the FA Cup, and certainly the League Cup would slide yet further down the priority list for these in-demand clubs.  Already we see shadow squads competing for the League Cup, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see withdrawals from that competition, and the treatment of the FA Cup as a proving ground for promising younger players.  It would be the eager crowds in the Far East, Australia, the USA and the Middle East who would have the pleasure of seeing the Premier League’s major talents performing in the flesh.

The question also arises: what of the World Cup, and the slightly lesser competitions held on individual continents?  Would FIFA be prepared to take on Murdoch and his increasingly omnipresent empire?  The days when domestic cup competitions caused a thrill of excitement and a sense of occasion are already receding into golden memory.  Will the same happen to the four-yearly cycle of the greatest international tournament of them all?  It’s not impossible; and if it were to happen, we’d know what to blame – the three M’s.  Murdoch, Money and Markets.

The time is fast approaching when Football as we know it will be in sore need of rescue by seemingly the only people left who actually care enough to want to preserve its proud history and tradition: the fans.  Obviously, I mean those of us who are old enough to remember the game’s great days, before Murdoch got his talons on it; when you stood on a packed terrace and sampled an incomparable atmosphere as you cheered on your favourites for under a pound and moaned mightily when that went up to £1.50.  When the only games shown live on the box were really big ones, Cup Finals, major International games, European nights and maybe the odd smattering of League games here and there.  Those were the days when you would have laughed out loud at any suggestion that one day you might be asked to fork out £60 a month for “entertainment” which might include Norwich v Wigan on a Monday evening.

That’s the reality we have now, and it’s scary to look ahead and see how much more our game might change now that Uncle Rupert has had this spiffy new idea.  He’ll want to make sure his audiences have their entertainment in a way that doesn’t put undue strain on their attention-spans, and allows enough time to sell, sell, sell in those commercial breaks.  Didn’t someone once have a great idea about playing four quarters instead of two halves?  What about time-outs?  Why bother with boring draws, can’t we have an exciting shoot-out?

If you doubt things might actually go down that road – just cast your mind back 25 years, and see if you could have imagined then the kind of game we have to watch today, and ask yourself: couldn’t it maybe happen?  Aren’t we in real danger of losing the last vestiges of the game we used to know and love?  And isn’t it maybe time to think just what the hell we can do about it?

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Man United – Why Always Them?

Former Manchester City maverick Mario Balotelli will be remembered in the English game for many things, but prominent among those various goals, skills and misdemeanours will be his famous celebration after scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season in City’s 6-1 eclipsing of their local rivals.  Balotelli slotted the ball home calmly at the Stretford End, turned away with no sign of emotion on his face, and lifted his City shirt to reveal a t-shirt on which was printed the heartfelt plea “Why Always Me?”.  The message, after a series of incidents culminating in a row with the emergency services when he set off a firework in his bathroom at home, clearly indicated a feeling that he was being scapegoated to a certain extent.  To add insult to his perceived injury, he was booked for the t-shirt display.

Recent events, on top of a long history of prominent stories figuring the controversy and fuss that attend one football club above all others, might lead us to ask a somewhat wider version of the same question.

Why is it always Manchester United?

The furore surrounding their Champions League exit on the 5th March is fairly typical of the controversy the Champions-elect seem to attract, like flies to a bad piece of meat, on such a regular basis that you tend to wonder whether it’s just coincidence or a Machiavellian form of press-management.  So “enraged” was manager Alex Ferguson after their defeat, which turned on the dismissal of Nani for what might charitably be termed a high tackle; that he refused to appear before the assembled press after the game.  He was “too distraught” apparently, to fulfil his mandatory duties in that regard.  To the media of course, a story about a no-show from Ferguson is a much bigger scoop than anything most managers might say in adhering to their agreed obligations.  But Manchester United and controversy have gone together like port and nuts for a long, long time now.

ImageCloser examination of the incident in focus this time reveals a worrying lack of consistency in Ferguson’s emotional reactions over remarkably comparable incidents.  Nani’s liver-high tackle was described dogmatically as “definitely not a red card”, paving the way for Man Utd claims of ill-treatment and bias.  A virtually identical tackle some time before, by Arsenal’s Eboue on Ferguson’s own player Evra, was also punished by a red card, but that one drew praise from the choleric Scot, who stated that the decision was “100% correct”.  This apparent self-contradiction is nothing new in the world of Alex Ferguson, or indeed in the wider manifestations of the club who like to brand themselves “The Greatest in the World”.

At the end of the Real Madrid match, enraged home defender Rio Ferdinand saw fit to get up close and personal with the referee who had dared dismiss Nani, sarcastically applauding him at point-blank range.   This is a widely-recognised form of dissent, and would normally merit a yellow card.  The referee did nothing, and UEFA have since confirmed that no action will be taken against Ferdinand.  It would be tempting to ask what sort of message this sends out to aspiring young players, if the answer were not so glaringly obvious.  That message is, as ever:  Man Utd can basically do just as they like, the game’s ruling authorities being so much in thrall to the club’s global profile – and the markets dependent upon its prosperity – that they will often turn a Nelsonian blind eye to such flouting of the rules, in the fond hope that nobody will notice when other clubs are dealt with more severely for like offences.

It has been said, with some justification, that one of the more hackneyed clichés in today’s game is the regular statement from the Football Association along the lines of “We have looked into (insert name of misdemeanour perpetrated by the Man Utd club or employee here), and can confirm that no further action will be taken.”

This sort of thing has been going on for many years, and while most clubs might shy away from such regular media attention of a not entirely positive nature, Man Utd as an entity appear to subscribe to the old maxim that there’s simply no such thing as bad publicity.  They have displayed a talent for remaining newsworthy, certainly on the back pages and not infrequently on the front as well, more or less continually, and dating back to well before their current era of success.  The incidents are many, and mostly quite unsavoury – Rooney elbowing a Wigan player and getting off scot-free, dodgy penalties too many to number, the legendary difficulty of seeing a penalty awarded against them and so on and so forth – and yet the default press position remains that the club are pre-eminent in the game for reasons of skill, charisma and courage, an apparent myth lapped up eagerly by the global fan-base, most of whom have never seen the team play in the flesh.

We hear far too much also of Ferguson’s so-called “mind-games”, a phenomenon particularly beloved of the media in this country, but one which appears to consist largely of an elderly gentleman having great difficulty sticking to the path of veracity at those press-conferences he deigns to attend.  Madrid manager Jose Mourinho is one who prospers in these psychological duels – in Ferguson’s petulant absence after the game last Tuesday, he stated that “the better team lost”, and walked off, content at having fanned the flames of the Man Utd manager’s fury.

It seems though that UEFA are after all to look into Ferguson’s failure to turn up for the press after this latest controversial occasion.  Presumably they will investigate fully, and a technical charge of “Sulking” might just possibly ensue.  But it would be unwise to place too much money on such an outcome; it may well be that we’ll yet again hear those old, familiar words “no further action will be taken”.

Stand Up, If You Hate Man U – And Think It Might Be TV’s Fault

Hate Man U

On Saturday 8th January 2005, Manchester United played Exeter City in the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup. It was something of a mismatch on paper, but surprisingly a plucky Exeter team held out for a 0-0 draw, and took the holders to a replay. A significant achievement for the minnows, but this game was noteworthy for another reason; to date it remains the last F.A. Cup tie involving Manchester United not to have been shown live on TV.

Even on the face of it, this is a remarkable statistic. Particularly in the earlier rounds, there are many matches from which TV companies can take their pick, and traditionally the perceived likelihood of an upset is a big draw. Given the perennial dominance of Manchester United, it’s usually difficult to see much chance of a giant-killing, and the interest in games involving them, you might think, will be mainly for those occasions when they’re drawn against a Chelsea, or a Liverpool, or maybe even a Manchester City or an Arsenal.

Looking at the list of games included in this amazing run of uninterrupted TV spotlight, some of them really do make you wonder what the companies concerned hoped to achieve, with the chances of an embarrassingly one-sided contest surely outweighing by far any prospect of a surprise. It begs the question of whether broadcasters are putting too high a priority on audience over entertainment value. There may be a certain piquant charm in seeing the likes of Burton Albion gazing wide-eyed at the immensity of Old Trafford, but some of the ties televised have lacked even this saving grace. Middlesbrough or Reading at home? Hardly sets the pulse racing, does it?

Any hint of complaint about Manchester United will, naturally, bring anguished howls of protest from the direction of London and Devon, as hard-core Reds, some of whom may even have visited Old Trafford, loudly complain about this latest manifestation of “jealousy”. It’s become rather a knee-jerk reaction, but there’s really not a lot of foundation for it. Anyone truly motivated by envy (jealousy means something different, chaps, look it up) has a simple solution at hand – simply jump aboard the bandwagon. The prevalence of the Old Trafford club on our TV screens will certainly garner them increased “support” from those who just want to be identified with such a vulgar example of a club gorging on success. It is the more negative effect of blanket coverage that should be worrying, not so much for Manchester United, but for the sport itself.

For there is a danger here that the media have not only created a monster, but that they are actively encouraging that monster to eclipse all their rivals. The basis of any sport must be healthy competition, but there is disquieting evidence that the playing field has not been level for a long time now. It doesn’t take too much digging to unearth some unsettling trends. One study over a number of matches suggested that 88% of all marginal decisions went the way of Manchester United, and there was also a distinct lack of penalties awarded against them in league games at Old Trafford over a period of years. There have also been instances of referees who have displeased Alex Ferguson mysteriously disappearing for months from their fixtures. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at professional level, evidence that one club enjoys preferential treatment is a matter of concern. Such a trend, given the amount of money flowing into the game, could easily lead that one club into an unhealthy dominance, to the detriment, ultimately, of the spectacle as a whole. Fierce competition is so crucial to any healthy sport, that the importance of this principle is difficult to overstate.

Success, they say, is all about the steady accumulation of marginal gains. Manchester United as an institution appears fully to appreciate this, as any club should. But these days, the media are the game’s paymasters, particularly the TV companies – and when they start favouring one club above all others, then you have to fear for the ability of others to compete in the long term. It’s a matter of concern – and it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more coverage (of an almost exclusively favourable nature) promotes more support ever further afield for “United” as the media love to call them. And the more support they gain, the more of a market there is which will feed on their success, so the more commercially desirable their success will become – and commercial pressure speaks volumes when knife-edge decisions are to be made.

It would be difficult to imagine that any other club should have such a long, unbroken run of live TV coverage in their F.A. Cup ties. In the 4th round of this year’s competition the other week, they figured in their 38th consecutive such event. The home game against Fulham followed its predictable, boring script – early penalty, spineless opposition, comfortable home win. Meanwhile, Brighton faced Arsenal, in what was, equally predictably, a much more exciting contest; two sides playing good football, and the prospect of a shock never far away. But this tie was not seen live. In the 5th round, Man U will face Reading at home, which will probably, let’s face it, be another Fulham-esque stroll. And, sure enough, yawn yawn, it’s live on the box again, despite the fact that there are murmurings of discontent now, from some sections of the press who evidently realise how boring it all is.

As a Leeds United supporter, I’ve had cause to bless the tendency of TV companies to cover even the games where “United” seem certain to roll over the opposition. On January 3rd 2010, Leeds, then of the third tier, triumphed at Old Trafford before a live ITV audience, sending the Champions spinning out of the Cup at the earliest possible stage. But satisfactory as this was, it’s the exception, not the rule – normally the colossus will trample the underdogs, and their millions of fans worldwide will be happy. But what about the rest of us? Are we to continue paying our satellite subscriptions, and buying our match tickets, for the privilege of watching Man U clean up as the stakes become higher, and the odds become ever more skewed in their favour?

At some point, worms will start turning and – at the risk of mixing metaphors – maybe the bubble will finally burst. Then, chill winds of reality will blast through the offices of the TV moguls. Don’t say you weren’t warned.