The weekend’s spat between Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp and BT Sport’s Des Kelly has shone fresh light on the complex relationship between football and TV. It reveals fault lines that have been evident for some time but which, somewhat ironically, are now being focused on more widely because they are a broadcast ‘moment’.
Answering Kelly’s question about whether James Milner had a hamstring injury, Klopp said: “Yes, congratulations”, referencing the 12.30pm kick-off time selected to broadcast the game. Kelly took exception and told Klopp he was aiming at the wrong target. “You should be talking to your chief executive”, he said.
It’s a process familiar to fan groups who have attempted to talk about broadcast deals in recent years. While the players and managers have issues with kick-off times because of the risk of injury and fatigue, fans have issues because of the challenges of getting to and from games. The clubs say their hands are tied by the broadcasters, the broadcasters say the clubs decide. Sometimes both try to blame the police. But mostly no one takes any responsibility. In football, people are too often only responsible for success, nothing else.
The truth is that clubs and broadcasters are responsible for when matches are broadcast. The fact that each tries to avoid any responsibility betrays a lack of confidence in their position.
When he was CEO of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore’s great success was to maximise the value of the Premier League’s collective TV deal. The result is the eye-watering sums the TV companies now pay to broadcast games. But no sound business is going to pay huge amounts of money out without wanting something in return. And here we get to the problem. The clubs prioritised maximising the money they got. Which involved agreeing to much they probably shouldn’t have. Like kick-off times that the players and the fans aren’t happy with.
But the broadcasters are being disingenuous when they say all complaints should be directed at the Clubs. Because they, in return for the money they pay, not unreasonably expect to be able to broadcast games at a time when they can maximise audiences, advertising and return generally. Take the 12.30pm broadcast slot that was at the centre of the spat between Klopp and Kelly as an example. This was a slot introduced at the express request of the TV companies.
The broadcasters get very upset because they think everyone should be falling over themselves to praise them for showing games and putting in the money that allows clubs to pay the big bucks for the big players. There are few who don’t acknowledge what TV money has enabled clubs to do, but that doesn’t mean they think the TV companies should be allowed to dictate quite so much as they do.
The fact that they are is partly the fault of the people in charge of the game who have allowed the TV tail to wag the football dog. There’s a good argument that they do not realise the true value of the product they are selling, and still don’t, because they didn’t insist on enough protection for that product when eyeing the cash on offer. Really good business would have been to accept less in order to retain greater control over the product.
There are some who will be thinking this line of argument is not realistic. They would be wrong. Any business serious about sustainable success has to think about how it values and protects its product. So is the Premier League doing this as well as it should?
Let’s take a moment to consider who is broadly happy and who is broadly unhappy with the current state of affairs. Under ‘happy’ we can file the clubs and the broadcasters. Under ‘unhappy’ it’s players and fans. So, to put it another way, the current TV deal is something the people who own and broadcast football think is good, but the people who produce and consume football have big doubts about. That’s not good, sustainable business.
That balance of satisfaction goes a long way towards explaining the recent fiasco over pay-per-view games, surely one of football’s biggest self-inflicted PR disasters in recent years – and let’s face it, the competition has been stiff. Utterly convinced everyone would be so grateful to them for merely broadcasting games to fans who were locked out of stadiums, the broadcasters and the clubs came up with a price that prompted a backlash that went far beyond football. If either had actually bothered to talk to the people who consume the product they might have been able to avoid controversy. It’s simple market testing.
But the attitude of too many in football – and almost everyone in broadcasting – is that fans should be grateful for what they get. Although that’s an assumption about BT Sport because that organisation refuses even to speak to supporters unless they are the subject of some colour piece about fans who wear bobble hats in the bath.
The players who complain get short shrift too. After all, they trouser the money, don’t they? But whatever the arguments about player wages at the top level, the fact is that more consideration needs to be given to the risk of injury that arises from building a schedule around the demands of TV companies.
The misplaced indignation of the broadcasters came through the surprising channel of the normally reasonable Gary Lineker, who observed that players have it easier than many others so should basically suck it up. The players, whatever we think of the economics, are pretty essential to the game, and we absolutely must be concerned about their physical welfare. And once again, we see top footballers compared with other more ‘noble’ pursuits far more readily than, say, top stockbrokers. Make your own mind up about why that might be.
We need a better balance between the needs and interests of the four corners of this square — players, fans, clubs and broadcasters. That starts with proper conversation. There are people within each group — with the dishonourable exception, it must be emphasised once more, of BT Sport — who have shown themselves willing to have that conversation and understand the bigger, er, picture. This process needs to be accelerated. If it isn’t, at best we’ll see the current finger-pointing continue. At worst, dissatisfaction among consumers will grow, and risk to the producers will too, potentially reducing the value of the product. Any business that pursues a strategy that risks that outcome is heading for a fall.