Watch the football! Watch it! It’s going to move! (But probably not on Setanta)

ONE of Mitchell and Webb’s finer non-Peep Show efforts is a sketch parodying the hyperbole of Sky Sports’ Premier League trailers. (You know the sort of thing: This is Armageddon, only slightly more important. AND IT’S LIVE!)

The sketch was originally a part of their radio show, That Mitchell And Webb Sound. When the programme transferred to television, its two stars wanted to adapt the routine. But in a TV interview for BBC Two’s The Culture Show, David Mitchell explained that they had hit a snag.

That snag was this: They wanted to show Premier League footage as part of the sketch to give it some added realism, but buying even a few seconds of action would have blown their show’s budget. And they didn’t want to mock up their own football action, because they feared (with good reason) that it would look ridiculous.

In the end, the producers got around the problem by having a furious-looking Mitchell in a wig stomp his way around Loftus Road shouting: “Watch the football! Watch it! Watch it! It’s going to move!” It’s a decent enough compromise.

But I think we can safely state that Mitchell and Webb won’t be putting in a bid for one of the two Premier League packages that have become available for next season after Setanta failed to make a scheduled £10million payment to hang on to their live rights to 46 games. And it’s probably fairly safe to assume that the BBC won’t be bidding either, for the same reasons of cost. (A shame, really. I would love to have heard Mitchell commentating on a live Premier League game. Any chance the BBC could give him a go at highlights on Match of the Day next season?)

Indeed, the question is: Who can afford to shell out around £2million a match for the privilege of screening some of the Premier League’s less attractive games?

Setanta’s two packages effectively gave them a mixture of the second, third and fourth most attractive choices of each weekend’s four scheduled live TV matches in the top flight. (OK, it was a little bit more complicated than that, but it would be easier to explain the laws of quantum mechanics than give a 100 per cent accurate breakdown of exactly how the live games were shared out with Sky.) That meant that Sky always had the first pick, as well as having the bulk of the 138 Premier League games shown live each season.

It was a deal which seemed to work well enough for Setanta, especially when they secured FA Cup and England rights from the start of the season just completed. But a decision to reduce their bids for the Premier League TV contracts running from 2010 to 2013 saw them lose one of their two packages to Sky. Left with just 23 English top-flight matches a season, Setanta quickly hit the skids. The broadcaster’s future could now be charitably described as uncertain.

The Premier League have put Setanta’s two packages for 2009/10 – the last season of the current Premier League contract – out to tender again. Sky are expected to win the most attractive of the two, but EU competition law prevents them from owning both. It’s hard to see just who would pay the Premier League’s asking price (thought to be somewhere around the £40m-£45m mark) to show 23 not-particularly-attractive live matches, largely on Saturday evenings. ESPN have been mooted as the likeliest bidders, but even they might lose interest at the thought of paying £1.95m to get their cameras into Fratton Park for one night.

Perhaps, then, Premier League TV rights are set for a drop in value. (The Premier League themselves, though, are confident they can maintain TV revenue.) That would make life potentially tough for many of the top-flight clubs reliant on £30m-plus a season in TV money to fund transfer activity and player wages.

I’m not silly enough to say that the bubble is about to burst. (And when it does, it will be Football League and Scottish clubs who suffer first, as was clear by the number of teams suffering with financial troubles last season.)

And I’m certainly not silly enough to suggest that we are heading for a return to the old days; a time when top-flight football was available for free on terrestrial TV, and top-flight clubs were so accessible to the public that one of them agreed to play a match against an unsuccessful junior league football team on Surprise, Surprise.

(I’m not making that up, by the way. I distinctly remember around 1992 that Cilla Black and Co persuaded Wimbledon’s first team – John Fashanu, Hans Segers and all – to take on some Sunday league no-hopers who hadn’t won a game in ages. They even got Bobby Gould to coach the no-hopers, and Brian Moore to do the commentary. I can’t imagine that happening now, or indeed ever again.)

What I am saying is that the Premier League appears to be reaching its cash ceiling. The value of Premier League TV rights won’t drop enough to interest Mitchell and Webb. It probably won’t drop enough to interest any terrestrial TV channel, without the option of charging subscription fees to recoup any outlay. But it might drop enough to deflate some of the hype. It is after all, only a game.


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