Digital TV at 20: more football, less quality

“A revolution in broadcasting,” read Martyn Lewis on a BBC 9 O’Clock News broadcast way back in November 1988.

“Dozens of TV channels, hundreds of radio stations are on the way.”

The government’s white paper on broadcasting, which detailed proposals on the future of television and radio services, advocated more choice, and the introduction of a fifth channel. It more or less paved the way for the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

20 years ago this week, Sky launched Britain’s first digital TV service. As anticipated, there was a wider selection of programming for viewers right from the start.  Sky’s early competition came in the form of OnDigital, backed by the ITV companies.

In many ways there is a lot to be thankful for the move to digital. Analogue reception was never reliable (think of all the times you had to nudge the antenna), nor was it accessibility friendly. Television has become more interactive, and we can listen to the radio at the touch of a button. Yes, the quality of programming has suffered, but at least there is clarity on what each channel’s strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to being a “jack-of-all-trade” broadcaster.

Sport has greatly benefited from the digital revolution. You can watch live Champions League football in the evenings, EFL Championship highlights at the weekends and the best of the European football on demand, when and wherever you prefer. It has though come at a price, a large one at that. When Sky launched its sports and entertainment package in 1998, it set you back less than £30. Today the sports bundle costs three times at much, excluding HD charges, and various additional costs.

For Sky in recent years, holding on to sport rights has been as much of a battle as keeping customers happy. It has lost the Champions League and FA Cup to BT, La Liga to Eleven Sports, and US Open tennis to Amazon. The Premier League remains, its crown jewel, but is that enough?

The dispersal of sports coverage has been a gradual one, at the expense of the traditional channels. If the government are serious about increasing sport participation, there would be safeguards in place to prevent organisations from chasing the money, and a commitment to free-to-air television.

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Pick up a pen and write…

Today (22nd September) is ‘Dear Diary Day’. Yes, really. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but you learn something new. Come to think of it, every date in the Gregorian calendar celebrates a foodstuff, drink or item, or pays tribute to a historical event. (If you are wondering, 22nd September is also Ice Cream Cone Day).

The origins of ‘Dear Diary Day’ (or #DearDiaryDay for the millennials out there), are unclear. I’m not even sure who invented it after doing a quick Google search. According to the Days Of The Year site, it exists to “encourage more people to take up a pen and commit the events of their day to paper.”

Keeping a personal diary has its benefits; you may find it takes your mind off the pressures of the real world. Writing down your goals and thoughts can alleviate anxiety and stress. However the advent of the internet has led to the decline of the traditional diary. A survey last year found that 23% of respondents in the UK still keep a diary, with one in five men and one in four women writing on a regular basis.

Personal diaries are on the wane, but the art of recording your daily happenings is as healthy as ever. Blogging is one way to do just that, like social media. The obvious difference is you are sharing your opinions with an audience, which has its pros…and cons.

Whether you have a blog, a social media account, or personal diary, the key thing to take from ‘Dear Diary Day’ is to keep writing away. Jot ideas down on a piece of paper and type to your heart’s content. It will do a world of good.👍

No rest for the wicked in September

Only five matches into the club season and Patrick Vieira was already setting the agenda. Back in September 2002, the midfielder issued a plea to be rested, as he was starting to feel the effects of fatigue. At the beginning of the month, Vieira flew with France to Cyprus for a European qualifier, and no sooner the final whistle had been blown, did he hop back on the plane and resume training with Arsenal. He then played the full 90 minutes against Manchester City in the league.

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Vieira had suggested France’s dismal showing at the 2002 World Cup was because the squad were burnt out, and even though they had an early exit, he still felt exhausted. As far as his club manager, Arsene Wenger, was concerned, it was a mental issue and not a physical one, and there were no plans to rest him. As the weeks went on, Vieira’s performances on the pitch looked anything but leggy.

September is the month when players’ fitness levels need to be maintained. For the clubs competing in three different competitions, it marks the moment when two matches a week become a routine and long haul travels become the norm.

At present, last season’s top two goalscorers in the Premier League, Mohammed Salah and Harry Kane are having a tough time silencing doubters that a rest wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Their Champions League performances last night were off the pace, even if there was the usual movement and pace to their play.

So what do Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and his Tottenham counterpart Mauricio Pochettino do? Given this is a post-World Cup season it was to be expected, like Vieira in 2002, that players wouldn’t necessarily feel fresh or hit the ground running. Both managers last weekend played down fatigue worries, and it is likely they will ring changes once the League Cup resumes in a fortnight. As it is, maybe the best thing for a footballer is to play than wait.


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Champions League roadshow coming soon to a stadium near you

Could Europe’s flagship football competition be heading to the Big Apple? Earlier this week, speculation was growing that UEFA had assessed the feasibility of hosting a Champions League final outside of Europe. New York City was earmarked according to Jaume Roures, head of Mediapro (a Spanish media group).

24 hours later, UEFA chief Aleksander Ceferin categorically denied the rumour, telling ESPN: “This idea is currently not being discussed at all. UEFA has no plans to stage the Champions League final outside Europe.”

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Champions League football outside Europe? That’s unpossible.

So that’s the end of that … or is it? While Ceferin was quick to brush aside speculation, you only have to do a bit of digging to find that he spoke in favour of New York City hosting the final back in 2016.

As European football continues to expand and the money men seek new ways to bring bums on seats and investment, you can see why the idea might stick. Sooner rather than later a Champions League final will be held outside of Europe, such is football. We all thought once upon a time fourth-placed teams wouldn’t enter the Champions League, but those days are long gone.

If UEFA insist on making a day out of the event, there are only a few European cities well equipped to handle the demand; you only have to remember last year and the furore over flight tickets.

I guess it’s watch this space. Who knows, if the shysters have their way, the competition, like many others could fall into a roadshow.

Manchester City’s rise reveals an uncomfortable truth about English football

Manchester City were not the first to benefit from state-led ownership or big money, but Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club in September 2008 was enough to unsettle the hegemony and raise questions about how the footballing authorities could allow such a deal to be struck.

The trouble with acquiring new wealth as City found out was it didn’t necessarily make things easier in the short term, rather the opposite. The squad that Mansour’s Abu Dhabi Group inherited wasn’t Champions League tier, or even as talented as the one Roman Abramovich found when he purchased Chelsea five years previously. When City’s takeover was complete, attentions quickly turned to marquee signings, but they went about their business like mad Supermarket Sweep dash. Robinho joined the project, and there was talk of prising Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas from their clubs in the months that followed.

Four years and tens of millions of pounds later, and City finally reached the pinnacle: winning the Premier League. They did it the hard way, but it was the most dramatic climax to a season since Michael Thomas scored that goal at Anfield for Arsenal in 1989. Yet the scale and investment required for City to be crowned league champions was mind-boggling. Is there more to football than spending, and how can it be classed as a sport when certain clubs have the privilege of unlimited resources?

Wealth attracts criticism, and City’s owners have had their fair share of reproval for what others perceive as corrupting the game. On the football front, it can’t be denied the owners have handsomely rewarded their staff with bumper contracts, bonuses and state-of-the-art training facilities. The standard and consistency of City’s football under Pep Guardiola has been a sight to behold, even for the staunchest of critics.

Success is what the majority of supporters, directors and club reps crave and a worrying trend in football is the reliance of benefactors to pump success into their clubs. Building a successful team requires money. And many supporters wouldn’t be fussed at how said owner makes their money, so long as it gets poured into transfers and contributes to year-on-year success.

City’s takeover was only possible because of the unique way the Premier League operates and promotes its sport. The principle of state-sponsored ownership in football is abhorrent, and more should be said and done to question owners’ intentions. But the same goes for clubs willing to sell advertising space, shirt sponsorship and even stadium naming rights.

The set-up conundrum

Consider this: you are the manager of a Premier League club, and your team is up against one of the strongest in the division. You recognise its a results business and you want to do best for your team. So how should you go about winning the match?

That was more or less the conundrum facing Rafa Benitez at Newcastle yesterday when Chelsea were the visitors to St James’ Park. Newcastle lost by a slender scoreline (2-1), but his team almost came away with a point. Almost.

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Newcastle’s game plan continued a trend that picked up momentum last season, purely because the attacking power of the top teams had become greater. They ceded possession and frustrated Chelsea by sitting deep,  hoping to capitalise on mistakes.

When it works, and it almost did, would the pundits (namely Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness) have complained? Certainly not, but the manner in defeat, upset them.

“The possession stats are embarrassing,” mused Redknapp, while Souness offered a more measured response. “If they had done that away from home, I think it would have been more acceptable. If you’re a player, I think you’d rather lose 3-0 having a go than lose the way they lost today,” he said.

Souness made a great point that it is the “manager’s prerogative to set his team up the way he wants to play,” and that was the case with Newcastle. They weren’t expected to put on a show, especially missing six squad players.

It seems punditry has become results orientated and had Newcastle nicked a draw, the reproval would have been substituted for praise. Pundits complain about teams being unable to defend well (certainly in the “top six”), or have the tactical nous to contain opposition, so when managers at least try to set them up cautiously, should they not be given the benefit of the doubt? It’s better than “having a go” and getting thrashed 5-0.

Entertainment and results can coexist, (just look at Manchester City), but that relies on resources, and isn’t something which can be sustained organically. Pragmatism has a place in football, so we should embrace it.

Champions League is dead. Long live the cartel

The UEFA Champions League got underway in November 1992, but changes to the European Cup was not met with universal approval. Barely a year into the rebranding, UEFA confirmed plans to revise the format.

Following on from my last post, the Champions League was concocted to maximise revenues of top teams. It was a group stage that replaced the quarter and semi-final stage of the European Cup, and was played throughout winter and early spring time.

Why was the format scrapped? For a start, seeding in the early rounds didn’t have the desired effect that Campbell Ogilvie wanted. only two of the founding members (Milan and Porto), had qualified for the groups the following year, while his Rangers never made it past the first round.

The broadcasters weren’t happy either. ITV, the British network, had in effect paid £7 million over a two-year period to witness Manchester United try and fail in the knockout stages. While Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan chairman was happy with the progress made by his team (they went on to win the competition in 1994), Berlusconi the media mogul was less than impressed. As you can see from this snippet below, he wanted to exercise his authority:

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From The Times, 9 November 1993

In December 1993, UEFA agreed to changes. 24 teams were invited to play in the tournament, down from 44. The format was reversed so that the group stages started in September, which featured cup holders, plus seven league champions. The winners of the eight groups played in the knockout stage; two-legged quarter-finals, semi-finals and a single final.

The tournament was now taking shape, but at the mercy of television.