James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The great football robbery

Football, so we are told, belongs to the fans. Players and coaches too. Except it doesn’t. And if I’m wrong, and those who follow it and play it really do hold the deeds, then some fraudster has clearly doctored the contract. Because, thanks to a trick which would turn Charles Ponzi green with envy, they have engineered a situation whereby folk are forced to pay ever-increasing amounts to watch the very thing they are told they own.

Friday, 6th December 2019, 6:01 am

To borrow a well-worn phrase from the managerial notes which appear in pre-match programmes, this column was pieced together before last night’s match between Sheffield United and Newcastle. At the time of writing, the result was not known.

But for the purposes of my piece, the result is irrelevant. Because it focuses on how the wallets and purses of supporters are being bled dry by the sport’s decision to sell its soul to television executives. Suits and, in this new media age, denim-clad young turks whose sole focus, quite understandably, is promoting their channel’s balance sheet. Not, despite the flood of glitzy spiel designed to persuade us otherwise, the interests of those dedicated enough to spend a cold December evening sat or stood on the terraces watching their heroes in the flesh.

(PR professionals effectively insult the public’s intelligence every time, rather than simply telling the truth, they try and push a particular ‘line’.)

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United’s latest Premier League encounter was, in case it had escaped your attention, broadcast live by Amazon. The American giant, having seized control of the e-commerce market, is now fixing its sights on sports streaming. Good news, we are told by free marketeers, for the likes of you and me. Folk can now watch more fixtures than ever without having to peel themselves off the sofa. Providing, and this is the rub, you have enough disposable income.

Unless you already use their internet services, it costs north of £50 a month to subscribe to the sports packages offered by both SKY and BT. With Jeff Bezos and his crew jumping on the bandwagon, make that another tenner if you want access to every fixture being screened. Or, to put it another way, around 13 per cent of the average weekly wage of a UK worker in real terms. Clearly, this is impossible for most families to afford. But the game’s powerbrokers don’t care if they’re being squeezed out, or inconvenienced by rescheduled kick-off times, because they’re pocketing plenty of money. And neither, although they’ll pretend otherwise, do the clubs. If they did then, rather than congratulating the Premier League on increasing their annual handouts, they would petition for something more affordable for consumers and take the financial hit. But of course, they won’t. They’ll wait until it suits them, possibly when illegal platforms really begin to eat into the margins, before pretending to have been on the side of Joe Public all along. But, when so many of those in charge of running society know the price of everything and the value of nothing, should we really be surprised?

Television now calls the shots in English football: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield: Scott Merrylees
Sheffield United's game against Newcastle United at Bramall Lane was streamed on Amazon Prime: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
BT and SKY also broadcast Premier League games: AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS