by Liam Blackburn
“The truth is it’s been more Page Three than romance. The beautiful game, slapped all over a Murdoch medium between the adverts, hyped relentlessly, appreciated only for its surface.”
Those are the frank words of Guardian journalist David Conn on Sky Sports’ ‘marriage’ with the Premier League. He chronicles the formation of the Premier League and their decision to commit to Sky (for better, for worse) in his terrific book ‘The Football Business’.
For those of you not familiar with the book or indeed the story, Rupert Murdoch launched Sky in this country in February 1989. By June of that year it was losing him £2m a week. Meanwhile, England’s football elite wanted a more fruitful pie and the big five clubs at the time (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton) wanted larger slices of said pie. They chose Sky, with Alan Sugar, now of Apprentice fame, a pivotal figure in their decision to opt for the satellite company rather than ITV. And so began a rich (very literally) and prosperous relationship. The 22 clubs signed a deal to share £305m over five years marking the birth of the Premier League.
In 1992, when the league launched, less than three million of the population owned a Sky dish. Over ten million of us now have access to Sky’s services. The jewel in their diamond-encrusted crown is live football, more specifically, the Premier League. Within a year of its launch, Sky’s losses of £47m had turned into a £62m profit. Initial apathy to paying for something which had previously been free was overwhelmed by a craving for live football. Murdoch and the club chairmen knew the national game was our weakness and we were willing to pay up to get our fix. The nation suffered from a collective addiction and by 1997, Sky’s profits were up to £374m.
My generation was the first to grow up in the Premier League era and my first memory of a live televised football match was the last league game of the 1995 season when Manchester United travelled to West Ham. United missed a host of chances that day and Luděk Mikloško denied Brian McClair and co on countless occasions meaning that despite slipping up against Liverpool, Blackburn were handed the Premier League trophy.
When researching this article I stumbled across a YouTube video of the game’s build-up. There was no presenter, no analysts providing an hour long prologue and no interactive features for Gary Neville to get to grips with.
It was a couple of years before the Blackburn household were ready to let Richard Keys into my life on a regular basis so I watched this game with my granddad at one of his friend’s houses. A couple of weeks later I remember sitting around the TV with my dad and a veritable range of snacks as Everton shocked United in the FA Cup final.
I hear nostalgic stories from my elders about how the FA Cup final used to be the only game of the entire season televised and how the whole family would gather around the TV set for such a momentous occasion. That Everton-United final in 1995, and the corresponding fixture twelve months later (when Eric Cantona somehow found a gap to squeeze through a volley in the last minute) were the only times I ever experienced that. Sky made sure that televised football in the nineties became less of a luxury and more a part of the fan’s staple diet.
They were there to fuel my growing obsession for the game. I went through periods without Sky but there were several friends who were there to ensure cold turkey was never an option. And there were some magical moments. I remember going wild in a friend’s living room in front of his Liverpool-supporting older brother when Ole Gunnar Solskjær dumped them out of the FA Cup in the last minute. Then there was the surreal afternoon we experienced when watching a Tottenham v Sheffield Wednesday game with a Spurs fan which ended 3-2 to his team. Each time someone left for the toilet it would coincide with a goal. In the end, with our bladders fully drained, it descended into childish horseplay and his mother banned anyone from going to the toilet once Spurs had gone 3-2 up.
But all of this came at the expense of real football, the stuff that the square box could only transmit. The soaring prices of tickets, thanks in large part to the popularity of the Premier League and Sky Sports’ relentless promotion, meant my trips to Old Trafford tended to be yearly affairs, usually around birthdays. My granddad and dad have many stories about how they used to follow United home and away, a privilege which I didn’t truly experience until my early adult years. I was experiencing football but a different type from the two generations that precede me. I was experiencing football packaged by Sky.
It brought with it the rise of the much derided armchair fan. Suddenly everyone became an expert. In the same way that Eminem thinks his ascent to fame contributed to the emergence of “20 million other white rappers”, Sky is responsible for the Andy Gray imitations in every workplace, schoolyard, takeaway and pub.
This isn’t to say Sky’s influence hasn’t come without significant perks. Thanks to Sky we have access to more live elite football than ever before. Thanks to Sky’s millions we have a top tier engulfed with international talent which is displayed every week. Thanks to Sky’s millions we have one of, perhaps THE best league in the world.
Last weekend I watched five games in their entirety, Soccer Saturday and then Match of the Day on terrestrial television. Sky and those who have since picked up the ball lavish live football on us football nuts and gives us a vast spread to gorge from Saturday and Sunday, and Monday through to Friday.
The advent of the Premier League may have been possible without Sky but the resulting boom would have been a minor bang in comparison to the gigantic explosion that Murdoch created back in the early part of that decade. Those who rode that explosion are still reaping the rewards today.
Sky has changed the face of football in this country forever. Not just the way we receive the game but the entire fabric of the sport. This was painfully evident when Wayne Rooney was given a three game ban last season when one of Sky’s own microphones captured a foul mouthed rant by the United striker. The hundreds of other players who also require some soapy-water-in-the-mouth at football grounds across the country may get away with it but Sky’s Premier League won’t stand for such antics. Rooney is not just a player in Sky’s eyes; he’s an actor, a pin-up symbol driving their dramatic narratives to those at home. And that means adhering to the 12 o’clock conventions that TV has defined.
Sky Sports and the Premier League celebrate their second decade of holy matrimony this year. It has been a perfect relationship with each making the other half stronger as a result. There is an argument, the one promoted by Conn at the top of this post, that it is a marriage based on lust and desire, more sex than soulmates. That may be true but when the Premier League sprouted up in 1992, she was a dirty hussy seeking a filthy acquaintance and Sky were only too happy to drop their underwear.