Football is now struggling to hold our gaze for 90 minutes

Exploiting Rupert Murdoch's need to force customers to sign up to Sky, the Premier League defied the laws of economics.

Published: 26th October 2016 07:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th October 2016 07:58 AM   |  A+A-


Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo, center, Chelsea’s David Luiz, left, and Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta challenge for the ball during the English Premier League soccer match. | AP

By The Daily Telegraph

Cast your mind back to when you were seen as a social inadequate for not joining a conversation about the Premier League; when pariah status was attached to the lunch guest who was indifferent to Jose Mourinho's charisma, Arsene Wenger's intellect, or the merits of playing two holding midfielders rather than just one.

Back then, the Premier League obsession was such that Paul Whitehouse created a comic riff from the arriviste football fan who asked in the pub how Dennis Bergkamp could possibly play for both Arsenal and Holland. With its ruminations about Thierry Henry and its newly gentrified tribalism, the Premier League felt, for a while, like the only thing anyone ever talked about.

The stars were fresh, the stadiums were refashioned, the television coverage was revolutionised and the Premier League became the place where the nation met to unleash its passions.

Domestic cultural conquest was only the start. The marketing departments of England's top division set out like Victorian imperialists to repaint the world's map red, creating allegiances in far-off places that the locals never knew they had until David Beckham rolled into town.

Exploiting Rupert Murdoch's need to force customers to sign up to Sky, the Premier League defied the laws of economics. It was always boom and never bust.

Now cut to the news that TV audiences for Premier League matches on Sky fell by 19 per cent at the start of this campaign and that BT's Champions League viewership dropped 40 per cent one Tuesday night.

The first point is that stomping on the Premier League for greed is probably not going to take us much closer to an understanding of why viewing figures are heading south - here and in the NFL in America. There is alienation, sure, from the corporatised culture, with its joke transfer fees (pounds 89?million for Paul Pogba), agitating agents and hired-gun players. But let's not shoot it all down. There is still a lot to be said for a league in which Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs are separated by a point after nine matches.

Turning away from football is no longer a sign of weirdness, that much is true. For many, it is a badge of honour now not to pay three times over to watch a sport where people can earn pounds 100,000 a week for doing, well, not very much. A TV Licence, a Sky Sports subscription and a BT Sport fee amounts to a triple charge for watching a club engaged at Champions League level.

Yes, the latest figures may be distorted by illegal streaming, the Rio Olympics and changes in entertainment fashions (it is noticeable how many people say these days they have no wish to sit through 90 minutes of Hull v West Bromwich Albion). But allow me to go all zeitgeist for a minute to posit the theory that our distraction culture is responsible for people deciding they can follow football without actually watching the games.

Anyone who watches Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror on TV - well, via Netflix streaming, now - is already braced for the time when virtually all human actions are performed via smartphone: the hyper-addictive screen in the palm of your hand on which you can already watch live sport but also supposedly "be part of" the story, via Twitter, gifs and countless other social media playgrounds.

A crude but accurate summary is that we are hurtling to a point where people are too busy communicating with one another to concentrate on anything there is no obligation to concentrate on. 
And that requirement to focus on a 90-minute event has been removed by new forms of digital technology. Speaking to people now, you are struck by how many have not seen the game but know the 'important' details. They have seen the goal in highlight clips, watched Player A poke Player B in the eye in a gif and followed the Twitter storm about the ref missing an offside.

In a confession box, many would admit to keeping one eye on the game while fiddling with a hand-held device. Parents speak of children looking up from Snapchat when they hear a noise (a goal, perhaps). This distraction culture goes deeper than football. But since football is such a powerful force, it was inevitable that TV viewing figures would reflect consumption habits - if only in the field of illegal streaming. 

The television revolution put Premier League football on its pedestal and the communications revolution threatens its capacity to hold our gaze. On top of that we could start all sorts of conversations about the shortage of star quality here, the dullness of many games, and the Premier League's cardinal sin of over-supply. Spreading kick-off times over the whole weekend and invading Friday nights undermines dramatic tension. Football becomes a thing that will just not leave you alone.

The massively empowered social media spectator can escape the 90-minute commitment, and consume the game in fragments, on demand, any time, anywhere. So the same TV industry that preaches consumer 'choice' may end up paying a high price for giving people the tools not to watch the games for which the broadcasters paid such astronomical fees: more than pounds 10?million per Premier League match, in Sky's case.

If modern football ran off with our money, it might now have to double-back and persuade us to sit still and pay attention.


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