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Monday, November 11, 2013 

The real victors? The pirates.

As I suspect was the case with most other people, I cautiously welcomed BT's successful bid for the rights to show 38 Premier League matches a season.  I have neither the inclination nor the money to subscribe to Sky or BT, and frankly anything that undermines Sky's ultimate owner is fine by me.  I make do with 5 Live and Match of the Day, and don't think I miss anything not hearing the insights of Jamie Redknapp, or even Gary Neville.  Analysis of the game has always been done better in the papers, and the mute button works wonderfully when it comes to Alan Shearer and most of the other cretins the BBC employs, although it doesn't quite work when Robbie Savage is co-commentating on the radio.  Terrestrial broadcasting of Premier League matches clearly isn't coming back, and I have no problem with the decadence the game has sunk into since Sky invented football back in 1992 being on the conscience of others.

It looks as though, as per usual, we should be careful what we wish for.  Emboldened by signing up 2 million subscribers, BT has spent an astonishing near £900m to secure the rights to every Champions League and Europa League game, more than double the sum ITV and Sky jointly paid 3 years ago. Come 2015, those who don't wish to further enrich the oligarchs of the intertwined business and football worlds will have to make do with the final of both competitions, and probably just the one free-to-air game featuring a home team a season, likely translating to a grand total of 6 matches in the CL shown gratis a year.  ITV currently show one game live every round of the competition, so those not prepared to shell out are soon to be in a similar position to F1 fans stiffed by the deal cut between the BBC and Sky.  To get an idea of how out of reach coverage is becoming to the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5, the BBC's total yearly income courtesy of the licence fee (including the government picking up the tab for the over 75s) amounts to £3.65bn.

While you can detest how the modern game has developed, the Champions League, despite the best efforts of UEFA under Michel Platini is something of a rejoinder to the glib sentiments of those who argue the Premier League is the best in the world and an unalloyed good for football in this country.  Unable to watch foreign leagues free to air, Champions League games let us compare just how good the top four truly are, as well as how the different systems of training and development on the continent contrast to our own.  Over the past couple of years it's been obvious that despite the vast sums injected into the top clubs, the Uniteds and Cities have fallen well short of the top sides from Spain and Germany, while Chelsea were lucky to win on 2012 on penalties.

The loss of most of the free-to-air matches will certainly do nothing to fix the gap developing between British sides and our European brethren, while likely exacerbating further the stranglehold the clubs with the most money have on the top half of the Premier League.  Despite none of the four English clubs making it past the quarter finals last season, they still shared £100m between them, while the winners, Bayern Munich, picked up £43.2m.  These sums will only increase with the new deals.  Nor is there any suggestion Sky will cut its prices having lost another of its selling points, while BT admits it will have to put its own up, on top of the 6.5% rise their customers already face in January.   Despite this, BT's head of consumer division has the chutzpah to say "in difficult times people deserve access to sport".  Chance would be a fine thing.

If there is one slight reason to be optimistic, it's that despite the best efforts of the Premier League and others, illegal streaming of live games over the internet continues to grow.  They may have had First Row blocked by court order, but other sites quickly sprang up to replace it, while those already established have not yet been targeted.  For every fan who decides to subscribe to BT, another will say screw it and turn to the streams.  It's not yet a challenge to the game and the broadcasters as say piracy has become to the music industry, it's true, but as more and more homes get access to super fast broadband the potential is there for games to be streamed in similar quality to that they're transmitted in, albeit with a slight delay.  Only then might live football once again become available to those without deep pockets.

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