At the Tory Party Conference this week, Michael Gove claimed one of the things Rupert Murdoch could take credit for was changing football for the better, “his investment in Sky, it’s not my first love but it is worth acknowledging, has helped to revive Premier League football in this country” Sky has certainly improved the technical quality of football coverage and they should be congratulated for that. Gove has probably been very successful in his choice of words. The Premier League has indeed had a huge influx of money thanks to Sky’s need to use football to boost its subscription base. Unhappily, the rest of football has effectively been thrown to the lions, only benefiting from the bounty through transfer fees in the kind of trickle-down effect which Gove’s party place so much trust in.
You could argue that top-level football has been revived in the Sky era, not by TV money but by a surge in interest after the 1990 World Cup, improved stadia resulting from the Taylor Report, and moves to finally rid football of the malign twin influences of violence and racism that had made them coveted recruiting grounds for the far-right. Sky jumped on a bandwagon that was already rolling and very cleverly used it to hoover up as much cash as they could, though the publicity and exposure they provided, as Gove says, certainly helped at that point. Aspects of the game which have helped the momentum continue are undoubtedly due solely to Sky and the money they provide. In particular, the ability to attract some of the very best talent from all over the world has raised the quality of the football on view. With so many clubs struggling financially though, even with the money from TV rights, it has to be said that the revival seems at the present time to be more of a boom than a sustainable improvement, a bubble that will more likely than not burst at some point. Contrary to current worries though the implications of Karen Murphy’s court case against Sky is unlikely to be the pin that bursts the bubble. It seems that all Sky need to do to prevent foreign satellite being legally shown in pubs in the UK is to put their logo on screen on all broadcasts.
It isn’t Sky’s fault, of course, what the Premier League chooses to do with its lottery win. They didn’t force those club chairmen to break away from the rest of the football league and claim the greater share of TV money for themselves. They didn’t force them to funnel the vast majority of that money down the gaping maw of associated agents, crooked or otherwise, and their grasping proteges, as a reward for a measure of physical prowess. Sky didn’t force them to pile debt upon debt until they are nearly under, leaving them gasping so precariously for air that the slightest slip could be the end of them. For once, in this case it’s not Rupert Murdoch’s fault what the money his company has provided has done to the game. Even so, it has had the effect of giving unlimited funds to an adolescent; better clothed and fancier friends, but ultimately lacking in restraint and guiding principles. For that he should not be thanked.
Even if Sky lose the ability to make their football deals pay and choose not to bid so highly or even not at all at the next set of negotiations, the roof wouldn’t fall in on football in a financial sense. There’s still money to be made from TV football, whether Sky are legally able to corner the market for themselves or not. It could take the form of a deal with a pan-European broadcaster to show games, but surely the eventual endgame will be clubs negotiating their own deals individually. The cutthroat logic the Premier League clubs have lived by since the original 90s breakaway demands it. Money will accumulate to fewer and fewer clubs, problems to more and more. The conclusion commonly made, that Sky has ruined the game, is not strictly true. Football ruined itself, and the motivations that made them do it will continue to make them act the same way in the future.