Tipping Point: TV saved soccer – but viewers pay . . . and pay

Uefa reckon financial fair play turned clubs’ fortunes around but they’re kidding nobody

The numbers become dizzying when it comes to TV rights cash. Photograph: Reuters

The numbers become dizzying when it comes to TV rights cash. Photograph: Reuters

 

We were into minute 17 of an attempt to consciously uncouple from Virgin Media by the time patience went out the window and brusqueness closed the curtains behind it. Marriages have been dissolved with less weeping and wailing than it took to switch TV provider the other night. Government coalitions have split more amicably.

There was denial, there was bargaining, there were odes to loyalty and promises of an even greater future together. But it was over. It had been over for a long time, Virgin just wouldn’t accept it. At one point – and they record these calls so presumably there’s a tape somewhere in the ether for proof that this happened – I actually shouted down the phone: “Stop! Stop talking! You’re not listening to me!”

And he wasn’t. The chap was doing everything short of bolting all the doors and firing up the stove for some bunny boiling. “Man, I have such great offers for you,” he said. “I’m gonna give you three times the broadband you already have. And I’m gonna give you Sky Sports for half-price. You gotta think about it.”

Problem was, there was nothing to think about. Virgin don’t carry all the sports channels and I need them for work. And even if that wasn’t the case, too many Champions League nights last autumn turning on the box to see one of the Irish stations doing the Celtic match again had taken their toll. Manchester City were beating Barcelona one night and we were stuck with the thin gruel of Celtic v Borussia Monchengladbach. Never again.

Desperation

Coming in the week that Uefa published an exhaustive benchmarking report snappily-titled the European Footballing Landscape, it felt like an appropriate time for this sort of ordeal. This, after all, is where the rubber of the vast global sports TV rights bubble meets the road of getting sport-sick punters to fund it all.

Every time a new Premier League rights deal is announced, we goggle at the preposterous figures without necessarily copping that those numbers are arrived at on the basis that there will be enough of us pitching into the pot to pay for them. More than enough, indeed, in order to guarantee healthy profit margins.

There’s no end of stuff in the footballing landscape report to keep the numbers nerd warm through the cold snap. It being a report produced for and funded by Uefa itself, it’s hardly surprising that Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin is mighty pleased with himself and his organisation in the foreword, going big on the role of financial fair play in football’s success story.

“Financial fair play has not only steadied the ship of European football finances, but also provided the framework for unprecedented growth, investment and profitability,” Ceferin trills. “This detailed report shows huge reductions in losses since the introduction of financial fair play, record stadium and capital investment by clubs, and club revenue increases year on year.

“It also proves beyond doubt that financial fair play has turned around football finances – aggregate operating profits rose to €1.5 billion in the last two years, compared with losses of €700 million in the two years immediately prior to the introduction of the breakeven requirement.”

Em, well, it does and it doesn’t, Alek old stick. Any fans of The West Wing will be able to quote the old Latin fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc – after this, therefore because of this. In other words, football clubs were making huge losses four years ago and now they’re making huge profits, so financial fair play must be the reason.

Grand welcome

But really, who are they kidding? The phrase “TV rights” comes up only twice in a 130-page report. Uefa itself is presented as being the biggest source of revenue for clubs across the 54 leagues, but only as an aside do they mention that this Uefa money is TV money. The numbers get dizzying very quickly, but tucked away in one small paragraph is the fact that Uefa TV money increased by €240 million in 2015 alone and will go up another €200 million when the 2016 books are done.

And that’s without delving in any depth at all into the TV money gusher that is the English Premier League. Uefa can jiggery-pokery all they want when it comes to FFP but the simplest truth is that football is booming because football on TV is booming. England, Spain, Italy, wherever – the graph keeps going up because schlubs the world over keep paying for it. The question is, for how much longer.

Most people don’t need all the channels for work, after all. If the anxiety in the voice of Mr Virgin Media the other night is anything to go by, the people who make money out of this thing must be starting to wonder just how much juice is left in it.

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