The time-honoured tradition of gathering at your friend’s house for the big game, the one who pays for the sports channels, is under threat. The dismay of Sky Sports subscribers has been growing with every passing year. This summer marked the loss of yet more UK broadcasting rights, with La Liga and the PGA Championship lost to the relative unknown of pay-per-view. After a decade of PGA Championships and over two showing Spanish football, having already lost a significant portion of Premier League games, the appeal of paying an extra £28 a month subscription is diminishing. Is it really worth it?
But it isn’t just Sky Sports subscribers who are feeling short-changed. The latest rights changes seem symbolic of a wider change in Britain, with fans having to pay more to tune in to their favourite sporting events. Forgive the football-centric focus of this article, but it best illustrates the increasing cost of following sports. Predictably, the division of Premier League rights between BT and Sky has caused the most disgruntlement, with football fans now forking out in excess of £670 over the course of a year for complete coverage. Followers of Scottish football also have to bridge the divide, while the entire Champions League moved to BT in recent years. Furthermore, earlier this week, it was confirmed that the rights for the Scottish Cup are moving from Sky Sports Premier Sports and although this means more televised games, it is yet another subscription package to add to fans’ growing collections.
However, the excess is made starker by the bleak lack of affordable alternatives for sports fans. Terrestrial TV offers little in the way of live sport to make up for it, aside from the Olympics and the occasional international game. Going to events isn’t much cheaper with tickets to a Scottish Premiership league match costing upwards of £20. Sport in the UK, which owes much of its popularity to its accessibility, is running the risk of pricing fans out the game.
Of course, there are pros that come with the cons. In football, the money from television and global marketing has improved the quality of players flowing into the country (in England at least), with the Premier League marketing itself as the best league in the world. The polished Premier League executives would argue that while the product is more expensive, the product has improved immeasurably with the TV money over the last 22 years. That the monopoly of the market by Sky, in economic terms at least, was not only unhealthy but bound to change eventually. Clubs and sporting institutions would defend the increases in price, citing a need to compete with foreign competition, be that across Europe in football, or across the globe in other sports.
Sport is not immune to the realities of the world – globalisation is thrown into all sorts of conversations, whatever its topic, yet in few places is the effect as obvious and as tangible as in the Premier League. The focus has moved away from local fans, as clubs look to maximize revenue by addressing the global market, with stadiums throughout England increasingly resembling tourist destinations. By no means is this article promoting a blinkered ‘locals only’ attitude, rather pointing out the risk of distorting the product which was originally such a selling point. English football markets itself as home to the most passionate support, the best atmospheres and the purest incarnation of football in the world. Yet more and more, there are murmurings, the odd comment in the media, a hint of the image beginning to crack, with emptier grounds and quieter crowds.
Parallel to suggestions the current state of play is suffering, perhaps the more pertinent issue is one of sustainability. The growing cost of supporting a football team week-in, week-out, risks alienating those with the lowest income, commonly young people. Additionally, the potentially harmful effects of video games for children is a well-documented issue – one of the oft-cited reasons being that children are choosing to play video games instead of spending time outside. Whether or not sports will lose an entire generation of young people to video games remains to be seen but putting up more barriers to entry will not help. Should a generation lose interest, it could be catastrophic for spectator sports, even if the large institutions would continue marching onwards to ever larger profits.
While the world’s access to our football increases, it appears the inverse is true for us. Football is the world’s most popular sport, almost solely for its simplicity and inexpensive nature, the ease of access. A sport for the masses. The Premier League at least, is quickly becoming the hobby of the privileged. And if the rest of British football follows its example, it may signal a seismic change in the nature of the sport.
Maybe it is a privilege to see these competitions and the increased cost is a natural evolution – the best of anything has a higher price. Yet, as the paywall gets higher and working-class families are shut out of sports, it is worth wondering what the cost might be. Money piles up and zeroes are added, but perhaps there will eventually come a point where the loss of culture and tradition outweigh the balance sheets. Future generations and society in the UK have a whole lot more than just money to lose.