In the wake of Leeds United’s attempt to block Sky TV from broadcasting from Elland Road, when they claimed television schedules were deterring fans from attending games, Ciarán Breen wonders if 2016 may be the year that the growing influence of television money finally brings football to a crossroads and forces the ongoing debates about the price of watching football and atmospheres in stadiums to come to the boil.
In the lead-up to Leeds United’s game against Championship-topping Derby County on December 29th, club chairman Massimo Cellino announced that whilst the fixture had been selected to be televised on Sky TV, the broadcasters’ crew would not be permitted entry into Elland Road. Known for his dubious business dealings off the pitch, Cellino defended the move by saying that the frequency at which Leeds were being chosen to feature in live games was having a significant impact on gate receipts, particularly highlighting midweek fixtures, which are often rescheduled at relatively late notice at the behest of television schedules.
Despite their middle of the pack position in the second tier of English football, Leeds have been on Sky nine times already this season, compared to clubs such as Preston and Brentford, who have featured only twice. However, clearly Leeds United’s fall from grace in the past decade does not erase their past glories and status as a ‘big club’. So when high flyers Derby County are in town, Elland Road is still a draw for the cameras. In the end, the club withdrew their threat to ban Sky as they could have been charged with misconduct by the Football League and faced sanctions if they had enforced the ban.
In the aftermath, a report in the Independent revealed that across the Premier League gate receipts and other matchday takings now make up on average less than 20% of total revenue, down from 26% in the 2009-10 season and likely to drop significantly further when the new TV deal comes into force next season. In his piece, Glenn Moore concluded that high attendance figures no longer protect the historically ‘big clubs’, with Newcastle United, Sunderland and Aston Villa all currently languishing in the relegation zone. This trio attract some of the largest attendances in the league, but are the victims of the increased resources available to all teams in the division thanks to recent bumper television deals. The forthcoming deal, which will kick in for the 2016-2017 season, is valued at over £8billion.
There are two potential issues on the horizon as a result.
Whilst not guilty of spending beyond their means (like Leeds did before the bottom fell out), if any of the three mentioned Premier League clubs were relegated and subsequently unable – despite the help of parachute payments – to achieve immediate promotion back to the Premier League, they could very easily find themselves in the same position as Leeds: an attractive prospect for television companies scheduling Championship fixtures, but with supporters perhaps now less willing to show up for every home game. That prospect does not indicate a lack of faith in the fans of those clubs, rather a reflection of the modus operandi of football on TV: more football, spread across more days of the week, kicking off on more times of the day, with more people watching. Yes, the increasingly gargantuan TV deals reflect the growing market for football in places such as the United States, but with the price of matchday tickets becoming out of reach for many people, watching in the pub or at home for a midweek match has become a natural choice for thousands of fans across England.
Additionally, as quality increases, or at very least disperses across the league (see the rise of Stoke, Leicester, Crystal Palace and West Ham), fixtures that television companies wouldn’t previously have made a priority become attractive prospects. For example, Leicester’s home game against Chelsea in December was a legitimate Monday Night Football blockbuster-style fixture for Sky. But will fans of clubs not considered ‘big’ continue to head to the stadium, or will a Monday or Tuesday night in be more tempting in the future? There certainly won’t be hordes of North Americans waiting to fill their seats – as there were at the Emirates when I was there last week or as visitors from across the globe do at Anfield, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge every weekend.
The obvious intervention, which has been widely supported, is for clubs to use the television money to lower ticket prices. If gate receipts aren’t the be all and end all, why squeeze loyal fans when it is their presence that is supposed to create the atmosphere to soundtrack the on-pitch entertainment – a crucial element in making the Premier League so popular across the world?
These are not things which haven’t been said before and frankly I don’t think we can confidently say how the land will lie in the years ahead. After all, how many people forecasted a multi-billion pound television deal that would allow middling to lower top division clubs, never mind teams like Leicester and Watford, to really mix it up and push for European spots and in some cases even more?
But the turn of the year is a ripe time for speculation and the recent example at Leeds is not, I believe, an exception. It may be a first drop bouncing off the football bubble. We may see a few more drops as we move through 2016, or it might take longer, but the future has me a little worried.
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