The World Snooker Championship got underway on Saturday, and the TV boom the cue sport enjoyed in the 1980s got Tom Simmonds thinking about the new megabucks TV deal that the Premier League will receive from next season. Where has football’s armour-plated TV bubble succeeded where snooker’s failed?
The peak viewing figures of 18.5 million Brits who watched the black-ball finish of Dennis Taylor’s win over Steve Davis in the 1985 final was 18.5 million more than watched any football match on TV until January of the 1985-86 season. Admittedly, this was due to a media blackout of live football caused by an impasse between the BBC and ITV and First Division chairpeople, who thought the broadcasters were vastly undervaluing their ‘product’.
Notwithstanding, in the days of just the four terrestrial channels (yes, really kids!), snooker was huge. Barry Hearn, later to become owner of Leyton Orient FC, was the man who sold snooker to the masses. Big characters in Hearn’s Matchroom stable such as Davis, Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins became household names. When a young Scottish winning machine, Stephen Hendry, emerged to succeed Hearn’s players it looked as if snooker players were set to rack up the sort of salaries top modern footballers and golfers command.
The problem snooker had that football hasn’t, aside from its smaller following, is that tournaments, (save for their latter stages) are generally played when people are at work. This ensures snooker’s core audience tend to be an older demographic which the powers that be didn’t put enough effort into replacing by broadening the game’s appeal.
This leads on to the televised football explosion which really began in 1992 when Rupert Murdoch pledged to use coverage of the new Premier League as a “battering ram” to sell Sky subscriptions. Ever since, repeated protestations have come from those of us who have watched modern football grow corpulent on the constant flow of money that “the bubble has to burst at some point”.
There is still no sign of that happening with the new £5.14 billion Premier League deal about to kick in. So why does elite football keep sustaining such ostensibly unsustainable growth?
The fact the game remains the most reliable form of global conversation helps – something clubs and governing bodies rapaciously exploit. Big clubs prizing shirt sales in Asia more than gate receipts is a standard trope of those who complain about modern football’s direction. Yet the aggressive pursuit of keen customer bases in new markets is something that football clubs are extremely hot on. This breaking of new ground has opened up revenue streams which gives the cash more arteries down which to flow.
Compare this with snooker in the 1990s and 2000s which persisted with the same stale, largely UK-based circuit with leading professional player Ben Woolaston comparing being a snooker professional to a part-time job in 2012. This came just prior to changes introduced by Hearn. By then back in charge of World Snooker, Hearn’s aggressive courting of the Chinese market in particular is possibly heavy over-compensation for previous stagnation and the changes have imposed a brutal and expensive travel schedule on players.
What both sports run the risk of now (as does international cricket, which has been a year-round treadmill for several years) is that of saturating the airwaves to such a degree the viewing public become indifferent to what could become a diluted ‘product’.
However, there are signs that the Premier League may have managed to dodge this too. Ironically, the perpetual influx of big money – the thing that made the Premier League so predictable and uncompetitive at both ends for years – has now got that division into a position where a team like Leicester City can be on the verge of winning the league. City has created an arms race whereby the middling and smaller clubs can pay whacking great transfer fees and offer their star assets ludicrous wages to ward off bigger suitors for a longer period.
Do you think the new Premier League TV deal will be good for football? Will it result in more Leicesters challenging for the title every season?
Read more from Tom here
Follow Tom on Twitter @TallulahOnEarth