Overindulgence is often a problem over the festive period and this is not just limited to food and drink. There will be 41 Premier League matches broadcast live on TV in the UK. When you add in games from the FA Cup, League Cup, Football League, Champions League, Europa League, European and global leagues, as well as all the highlights packages, is there a chance that we are reaching saturation point?
Football has not always been this way. Can you imagine the uproar if it had been announced in the summer that there would be no football on our TV screens this season? No live games, no Match of the Day, no Goals on Sunday, no Super Sunday, no Monday Night football and no clips on the news. That’s exactly happened in 1985.
Football was at rock bottom as the 1984-85 season drew to a close. Hooliganism blighted the sport, with deaths at matches in Birmingham and Brussels – the latter ultimately leading to a European ban. Stadiums up and down the country were decaying, with the Bradford fire demonstrating the lack of regard given to the safety of the supporters who were still brave enough to attend matches.
With football in such a mess, the last thing the sport needed was to disappear from television schedules completely. But, when the Football League rejected a joint bid from the BBC and ITV in February 1985, a battle commenced that would pit TV executives against club chairman until the new year. The bone of contention revolved around the number of live matches that both parties wanted to screen. The TV companies offered to pay £19m to show 19 live matches per season for the next four years, but the clubs insisted that no more than 13 games (10 in the league plus the League Cup semi-finals and final) be broadcast.
With chairmen such as Ken Bates of Chelsea, Robert Maxwell of Oxford United, Irving Scholar of Tottenham and Sir Arthur South of Norwich City fighting the Football League’s corner, any prospect of a quick resolution seemed unlikely. “Football rates itself far too highly,” said the BBC’s head of sport Jonathan Martin. “It has no God-given right to be on television.”
With 36 of the 92 league clubs reportedly in debt, a lack of television money would prove damaging. The bigger clubs were concerned that not being on TV would affect their sponsorship deals and the clubs in the bottom two divisions worried that they would miss out on a vital £25,000 payment from any TV package. Liverpool chairman John Smith was keen to strike a deal, saying: “It’s all very well certain publicity-conscious chairmen mesmerising our members with telephone numbers of cash. The clubs with any understanding realise they need television far more than television needs football.”
The two sides set a deadline of June to reach an agreement but it was not going to be easy. “We are prepared to renegotiate,” said ITV head of sport John Bromley. “But it’s up to them to approach us and we shall only be able to offer them substantially less than our original offer.” Naturally, this did not go down well.
Clubs had to improve their safety standards and fall in line with recommendations made in the Popplewell Inquiry but, without a TV deal in place, some of them were facing a perilous financial state. “It is no overstatement to say clubs are fighting for their existence,” said Football League secretary Graham Kelly in July. But, as the 1985-86 season drew closer, it became apparent that there would be no football on television for the first time in 20 years.
Bromley, the head of sport at ITV, did not sound too worried. “Recorded football is a dead duck,” he said. “The days when the Big Match or Match of the Day kept people in on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday night are over. The public don’t want it any more. They want live action.” Any football on our screens would have been nice but, with the Football League concerned that showing more live matches would reduce crowds even further, no compromise was reached. As the league season kicked off on Saturday 17 August, football fans were left in the dark.
Armchair Manchester United fans were not able to witness their team winning 10 league matches on the bounce at the start of the season. Who was this mysterious Frank McAvennie character who kept scoring goals for West Ham? What were John Motson, Barry Davies and Brian Moore up to during this break?
Finally, after months of wrangling between the TV companies and clubs, fans were given an early Christmas present. Starting in the new year, the TV companies would pay £1.3m to show six live league matches, three League Cup games, plus live FA Cup ties from the third round until the quarter-finals. “We believe that putting the game back on the screens will stimulate interest rather than kill it,” said Everton chairman Philip Carter. “We are anxious the more positive side of football is shown and television is the vehicle to do that.”
“Everyone involved should be congratulated on a sensible solution,” said Bromley. “We hope this deal will bring the glamour back to the game and bring the stars back into the living room.” Come the new year, football was back on our screens. Fans breathed a sigh of relief and, on Saturday 4 January 1986, sat down to watch Grimsby v Arsenal and Portsmouth v Aston Villa on the Big Match. Bliss. The following day live football returned and we saw McAvennie set up strike partner Tony Cottee in West Ham’s 1-0 win at Charlton in the FA Cup.
All was right with the world again. But among the wreckage of failed meetings, clues about the future direction of the sport were visible. The waters had been muddied in October, when talks of a new Super League circulated. With satellite channel Screensport mentioned, the seeds of the Premier League had well and truly been planted. BBC and ITV paid £6.2m per season for the rights from 1986 to 1988, with the price going up to £44m per season in the 1988-92 deal. And then came Sky.
Paying £190m per season for the right to show live football, Sky truly blew their opponents out of the water in 1992, as Tottenham chairman Alan Sugar advised. The rest is history. The latest Sky/BT deal in 2018 was £4.5bn. In 1985, money was too tight to mention; seven years later a satellite station changed English football forever.