Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Living with footie's telly belly

First published in The Grecian, 20 August 2007, Exeter -v- York City

So, the new season is well underway – though still at an early enough phase to indulge our dearest hopes. For Exeter City fans, a promotion place is the main goal. Of course.

But few would turn down a big, juicy FA cup tie with the premiership elite, either – not least because of the TV revenues attached to such an occasion.

As Grecians fans know, TV plays a major role in making football an inhabitable environment, and not just because of its entertainment and information value.

Those two precious ties against Manchester United in 2005 live on proudly in the collective ECFC memory. But more than that, they are part of the reason why – in spite of the disappointment of losing last season’s Wembley playoff – we are where we are right now.

Imagine what life would be like without the revenue the Man U matches provided? Those within the Trust and the club who worked so hard to turn survival into flourishing would have been given an even more mountainous task.

All of which reminds us that, for those at the lower end of football’s financial food chain, so much of the telly belly that can spell fitness or failure depends upon, well, sheer luck. The right draw at the right time. The upside is also the downside.

There’s no question but that the TV companies have spooned millions into our beloved game, as well as raking millions in for themselves. But after the record close season transfer spending fuelled in large part by money from television revenues worth £2.7 billion over the next three seasons, no-one can seriously doubt that the influence of the little screen is to produce a hall of mirrors in some board rooms, either.

For while the financial cake depends upon investment, gate receipts and merchandising, it is TV which has had the lion’s share in turning the Beautiful Game into big business – and a top-heavy one, at that.

This, the optimists say, is “simply the way of the world”. But it’s also uncomfortably like the law of the jungle – the big eaters get to rule the roost, and those who survive on smaller scraps are constantly looking over their shoulders to see where the next meal is coming from.

The answer, for us anyway, is to make sustainability the name of the game. In spite of the difficulties and wrangles along the way, that has been a key part of the Grecians' revival story.

Sure, we’d all like more money to splash on bigger players. But the spend-now-pay-later policy comes with a hidden price, given the vagaries of a sport that can turn on the outcome of just a handful of games.

In 2005-6, fewer than half of premiership clubs posted profit. Their growth model is based on looking jealously at the astronomical revenue of NFL or Major League Baseball in the USA, where telly also plays a pivotal role.

But those megabucks are only achieved because relegation isn’t an issue and neither is serious global competition. What’s more, the market is both bigger and (in a number of respects, like transfers) more controlled.

All of which means that the crazy world of soccernomics is unlikely to become saner by Supersizing, unless the fabled European League really does happen.

Here at Exeter we may sometimes envy the big boys’ big bucks, and curse the injustice of a money system which depends massively on luck or location. But at least we have our fate in our own hands. Some of the household names in football may soon come to crave that more than they can imagine.

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