Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Truly Free Market can be Good for Football

The European Union and its various arms of interference get something of a kicking on these pages, and usually with good reason. The Tories' current appeal to populism regarding the European Convention on Human Rights  may be utterly vacuous and bound to end in failure, but there is considerable merit in the view that it the ECHR produces a disproportionate number of perverse outcomes in cases that should be fairly clear-cut. While this bunny would never wish for the Uk to lose its status as a haven and place of refuge for the genuinely oppressed, those who come to these shores on such terms clearly have their own side of the bargain to fulfil - namely to keep their noses clean and not engage in criminal behaviour.

Being born in a country that tortures and kills its citizens should not buy one a free pass in Britain on a no-strings-attached basis, so the frustration felt by many when this is cited by the ECHR as a reason for our continued 'protection' of individuals convicted of serious offences is understandable. Occasionally, we hear of instances where the person concerned has married someone born here, therefore meaning that deportation to their homeland would infringe their 'right to a family life' - of course, it is only these truly wacky cases that are reported in the mainstream media, as opposed to the majority in which the convention works well. However, the inability of any Uk government to opt out while remaining within the EU means that the law cannot be amended as anomalies occur to ensure they do not happen again.

It is this general sense of powerlessness that rests at the heart of most anti-Euro sentiment in Britain. A Uk Bill of Rights, based loosely on the model of the US Constitution, would no doubt be popular with many (this bunny and several of our contributors included) - whether any of our dud parties really want to apply negative freedoms that legally protect individuals from State tyrrany is of course another issue entirely.

The latest brainwave from Brussels last week involved something that could best be referred to as 'free movement of welfare'. Were this proposal to become law, new entrants into EU States would be entitled to claim precisely the same amounts in welfare as an individual who was born and has worked in that country. Dave insists he will fight this, and this bunny will leave you to make up your own mind whether or not you believe him. Of course, every action by government has an unintended consequence and there might eventually be a positive fallout from all of this. State generosity with other people's money is bound to attract unintended levels of 'tourism', so the smartest counter to such a move is - less welfare, and get only those immigrants who are entering the Uk for the right reasons.

Wonder how long it will take for one of the Statist duds to figure that one out? Here's hoping...and waiting...

Anyway, back to business. Just occasionally, an outcome arises from a European arbiter that could be described as overwhelmingly positive. This bunny has long held the view that the Uk's situation with regard to the screening of live football was at best a cartel and in all likelihood a gangster capitalist monopoly, practising a form of extortion on the general population. Karen Murphy, a Portsmouth publican who has paid £8,000 in fines and charges for screening Greek TV coverage of Premier League matches on licensed premises, took a test case to the European Court of Justice, claiming that refusal to allow such broadcasts amounted to a restriction of free trade. Though it is not yet over, with the judgement still to be ratified by the High Court, the fact that the score after today stands at Gangster Capitalism 0, Free Trade 1 offers hope to those of us who hate monopolies and seek a genuinely consumer-driven society.

The Premier League is a massively feared organisation in England, with most of us understanding quite clearly that they, and not the Football Association, hold the levers of power over the domestic game. Since its launch in 1992, the essential rule has been - what the Premier League says, goes. With the wealth accumulated through bargaining for collective (and highly lucrative) television rights came the ability to make 'the greatest league in the world' the primary focus of any discussion about football's future. Even those of our readers (and I suspect there are many) who care not for football will know that the Premier League has become big, corporate, multi-billion pound business, made ever more remarkable by the clubs' penchant for actually losing money despite the windfalls at their disposal. Now it's finally been 'discovered' that the television deal on which these billions were made may really have been a cartel or monopoly - go figure...

There remains an issue around copyright - not so much regarding the match being shown at the time, but of the Premier League brand, preservation of which appears to have been paramount to them since the outset. The displaying of their logo on-screen during a public broadcast would appear to be the bone of contention, and from the outside it smacks of a desperate attempt to clutch at straws against a turning tide.

The smart broadcasters will simply begin from 30 seconds before kick-off, perhaps resulting in Premier League secret agents hanging out in bars, hoping for their trademark to appear on-screen so they can pounce in Elliott Ness stylee and close the 'soccer speakeasie' down? Meanwhile, watching an EPL fixture on a foreign television decoder from the comfort of one's own home would now appear to be completely kosher - the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and this represents something of an anomaly in itself. If 'domestic consumption' is ok but 'public broadcasts' forbidden, how many people does one have to invite round to their house before the former becomes the latter?


The potential ramifications are massive for other televised sports, films and other popular programmes - with the consumer now free to walk away from Sky or ESPN and seek their soccer elsewhere, does their massive investment in the EPL commodity represent the decent value that it did to at least someone when the 'exclusive' deals were first struck? One would think not, and this surely has the potential to ripple through to other sports. The 'protected list', those events guaranteed to terrestrial providers, would certainly constitute a monopoly of its own and in all likelihood not be worth the paper it's written on. Meanwhile, if one applies this quite correct 'internal market' and 'free trade' thinking to the letter, State broadcasters such as the BBC must be prime targets to be broken up and/or privatised? If they're attacking monopolistic trading models, then one would hope that any such crusade did not stop at the villainous, low-hanging fruit of Murdoch and Sky.

Some are deeply worried about the potential end-game of clubs taking the initiative and selling their own TV rights, perhaps led to this sense of angst by negative instances in Italy and the Netherlands. This bunny fails to see the validity of such an analogy, since we have a much broader base of football support in England outside the top division. The lure of multi-millions for finishing last in the 'promised land' of the Premier League, backed by parachute payments upon instant relegation, has brought about a culture of recklessness and irresponsibility from chairmen and owners 'chasing the dream'. Some have fallen short and subsequently paid the price (Preston North End are a good example of this), while others (such as Bradford City) made it, spent the money, then found themselves back in the second tier faced with long-term contracts and a Premier League wage bill - administration and two further relegations followed.

Take the Sky bounty out of the equation, and this modus operandi of 'speculate to crash and burn' is cut off at a stroke. Yes, the likes of Manchester United will always have most to gain from going it alone, but then there may be a sting in the tail when matches are moved to 2am for the benefit of the Far East market - how long will their army of London-based fans tolerate it for? Getting into or dropping out of the top flight will matter more in sporting terms than anything else - in fact, gates can often be higher when the team is winning, occupying top spot in a lower division and there is no reason why television subscriptions cannot follow the same trend.

Half of the clubs currently in the Premier League could be described as its undoubted winners - naturally, many would by no means be 'too big' to play in the Championship, but their status at the elite level means ensures an inflated position of financial privilege. For example, could Leeds United and Nottingham Forest not sell just as many TV subscriptions as Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, and possibly more? What if relegation was not the end of the world - would we see less short-termism, fewer average players on obscene salaries and less trigger-happy, panicking chairmen, desperate to preserve the status quo? Naturally, the calibre of opposition on show would enable top-flight clubs to charge their supporters more to watch their games on television, just as they do at the turnstile, but the reduced effect in relative terms would mean the Premier League was no longer 'the promised land', nor would demotion from it equate to instant ruin.

This can be no bad thing and neither is another potential fallout - the new winners, outside of the established 'rich list', would be those who engaged with and valued their supporters. The size of football's financial pie would in all likelihood be smaller, but the general distribution of it may well turn out to be more even in the long run. One of the natural fears is that the ability to watch all of a team's games on television would drive supporters away from stadia. However, below a certain threshold this would simply not be possible, and while those clubs unable to make pay-per-view television work could always bargain collectively with a regional or national broadcaster, the need to attract paying fans through the gate would remain as pressing as ever. More than anything, a football match without an enthusiastic crowd does not make for good television.

However, there are ways in which a creative approach could indeed generate revenue - for example, why not broadcast only away matches on Club TV and sell this in conjunction with a season ticket at a discounted rate? How about the occasional free admission game for TV subscribers? There is of course nothing to stop clubs in Leagues One, Two and the Conference from endeavouring to attract overseas support and increase their revenue streams (before you laugh that off, East Stirling, whipping boys of Scottish football at the time, gained a cult following in Norway, essentially off the back of being useless and having a Norwegian midfielder - this bunny suspects Shire TV would do surprisingly well if marketed properly).

In short, clubs that maximised and then looked after their supporter base would thrive, while those who continued to neglect them ran the risk of oblivion or extinction - they would very much be in control of their own destiny, and what's wrong with that?

Some people see the mess that is the Premier League and over-rewarded footballers as a stain against the name of the free market. In reality, it is another of gangster capitalism's dubious triumphs, sitting neatly beside the energy extortion racket and 'privatised' railways. Undeserving rich and distorted remuneration are of course the inevitable side-effects when monopolies and cartels run the show, and a dose of free market realism is the antidote to such ills - in that sense, Karen Murphy may have opened a rather welcome can of worms. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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