DAVE BOYLE is the chief executive of Supporters Direct, the organisation that works with supporters trusts at football clubs to help them buy shares and increase influence at their clubs. A former long-serving National Council Member of The Football Supporters’ Federation, he supports AFC Wimbledon. Rather marvelously, he was also the advisor on ‘football matters’ to series Three, Four and Five of the TV soap opera ‘Footballers’ Wives’
By Dave Boyle
10 February 2011
What will be the long-term impact of the Karen Murphy case be? Assuming the European Court agree with the view of the Advocate General which was announced last week, some have predicted the end of Civilisation As We Know It, whilst others say Sky will become even more powerful.
But what if the decision ends up being the renaissance of lower league clubs? It’s all to do with the 3pm blackout, which dates from the time when football chairman – led by Burnley’s Bob Lord – feared that TV exposure would damage already declining gates, and so the 3pm-5pm Saturday time slot is currently prohibited (voluntarily, not legally) for domestic broadcast of matches.
Yet in Europe, any match can be shown at any time, so if the domestic and European rights get merged, then either the rest of Europe gets the same 3pm ban as England, or else Enlgish football loses it. With more money to be made from the latter, the odds are massively in its favour as the likely outcome.
The thought of its departure will doubtless cause many a lower league club chairman to panic, but they could be cannier and see it as an opportunity. In order to understand why, we need to take a detour into economics and technological forces that have shaped the modern game.
In the old world, it took huge sums of money to get a picture from the studio to your living room. They couldn’t possibly do that for just the few programmes you liked, as the costs were only affordable as long as it was being produced on a mass-market basis. In football, that meant that because it cost a small fortune to cover a game. You needed an audience to make it worthwhile.
The best way to get an audience was to cover the big-name clubs, but the way in which broadcasting revenues are split gives more rewards to teams with big players playing in important matches. Those rewards enable those clubs to get big players who propel the club into being involved in important matches, not to mention building their fanbase through greater exposure. The only way to gatecrash the party is to find an oligarch or a oil emir.
The internet changes this equation by massively reducing costs. Once upon a time, to get a picture from one side of the world to the other, you needed access to a satellite in space and the GNP of a small country. Now, you need a cheap laptop, a decent digital camera and a fast broadband connection, and all are getting cheaper, better and faster respectively.
Now anyone can see anyone’s matches – if only they were able to show them. And that’s why the abolition of the 3pm rule offers an opportunity. For starters, all those fans a club might have who simply can’t get to games can now watch the team and pay for the privilege, bringing new income to the club.
It also gives a chance to build a brand. Every club has a brand of course – it’s just that the brand is geographically limited. You’re a club playing in a certain place, mainly for people who live there, or used to. Whilst everyone else has similar brands – before the advent of TV – that’s not so bad. But when TV gives your competitors a chance to develop their brand regionally, nationally and internationally, it gives you a problem you simply can’t bridge. No wonder people would rather watch the big club on TV rather than watch you in the flesh. But now everyone will have a better chance.
Don’t believe it’s possible? How else do you explain how a small German second-rank team called St Pauli became on of the most successfully marketed clubs in the world? They built a brand based on alternative culture and radical politics which made them a favourite team of hundreds of thousands of people who don’t happen to live in the district of Hamburg the club plays in. In their own different ways, both FC United and AFC Wimbledon here in the UK have become the second team for a lot of people who like their stories and what they represent.
In this world, every club will have a chance to develop and market its story, and some will do it better than others. Those teams will be richer and more successful than others, just as now. The difference this time is that it won’t be because of a decision made by a TV executive about which matches to cover but instead which clubs can better come up with a compelling story about who they are, where they’re going and why people should watch and support them.
For a long time, a small part of football has basked in the warm riches of TV exposure, whilst the rest have huddled for warmth on the dark side of the moon, trapped in a world created by Bob Lord and the prohibitive cost of outside broadcasting. Karen Murphy won’t cause the Sky to fall in, but she could bring sunshine to parts of the game that could make a real go of it.