Football, please stop bleeding me dry

Published: Nov 30, 2021  |  

Freelance sports writer

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” It was legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who said that. To so many in this country and around the world, football is a bigger part of their lives than seems rational or even healthy. But a love for sport is not rational. It is an admission of love for narrative, for emotion, for life itself.

It is a shame, then, that someone who wishes to enjoy a single Premier League season on live TV in the UK would have to pay £926.88—at the very least—for the pleasure. There’s not much pleasure seeing that come out of your bank account. That’s the same price as a decent-enough second-hand car. Or you could instead spend that money on a fortnight-long Christmas trip to Florence for two, five-star hotel accommodation included. £926.88 is not cheap; it’s a considerable amount of money. Season tickets at Leicester City and Everton are cheaper.

Because of the Competition Act of 1998, Premier League games do not have to be shown by a single provider. For that reason, games are shared unevenly and awkwardly each season by four separate companies: Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime and the BBC. And what’s more, due to the archaic blackout rule which stopped all 3pm Saturday kick-offs from being shown on TV (to encourage fans to attend matches in person), that £926.88 doesn’t even secure the humble fan access to every live game. Every time their team kicks off at 3 on a Saturday, they can forget it.

To watch every Premier League game on Australian TV—yes, every game—you’d only need to wave goodbye to £76. Not per month; per year. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that so many fans in the UK watch dodgy illegal streams from peculiar websites hidden deep under the surface of the internet. Most of these streams are showing foreign coverage of the Premier League, some of them UK coverage. Nearly all of them earn their dosh from aggressive adverts, though—much of it pornographic. It’s a sad thought that football-obsessed kids might be bombarded by porn pop-ups just because they or their families can’t afford the extortionate prices of watching football “the right way.”

Some would say the true “right” way to watch sport is to be there in person: to negotiate the turnstile, make it out through the terraces, and take a seat just a hundred feet from where the action is happening. But just as with watching from the comfort of your sofa, attending sport has never been pricier. A fan is now reasonably expected to sink nearly £100 on their team’s latest shirt, and the prices of tickets to games are also ludicrous. Firstly, fans can come into extraordinary difficulty sourcing tickets to watch their team unless they are paid-up members of the club with a track record of attending previous fixtures.

Even then, this is still a desperately unaffordable hobby. Tickets for Liverpool’s match against Arsenal last month started at £150. Yes. That was the start price. Sports Events 365 were listing tickets for the same game for £582. They weren’t even hospitality seats. Just imagine paying that only to see your team lose. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

It’s a difficult business for fans to stay on top of. And it’s difficult to see how it will change. Social media companies come and go. Tech giants come and go. Clothing brands come and go. Why should TV channels and streaming platforms be any different? Of course, they aren’t different. The BT Sport and Sky Sports of today could well be DAZN and someone else we haven’t even heard of yet tomorrow.

The real question is what can be done about it. Can these companies continue to reach further and further into fans’ pockets at their own will? This is the free market in action. So yes, sadly they can. Football federations—both national and international—can introduce rules to check and restrict broadcasters’ greed. But ultimately selling the TV rights of their products to the broadcasters is precisely how federations earn their keep. Too much intervention and their products’ saleability would be harmed. The whole system would collapse.

So can platforms continue to raise subscription prices? Can clubs continue to charge more and more for kits and membership and matchday tickets? The answer is the same: yes. The British football fan is being taken for a mug. And all because they believe football to be more serious than life or death. Well, it’s death—death by ever-inflating subscription fees.

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