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Alex Hess is a freelance writer who has written for Football365, Goal.com and Squawka. All while working at The Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @A_Hess.
“Just when you think you’ve seen everything in football, you get a day like this!” shrieked Sky Sports’ cheerleader-in-chief Alan Parry on Sunday, as Cardiff took a 2-1 lead at home to Manchester City. I doubt I was the only viewer whose reaction to Parry’s ludicrous hyperbole landed somewhere between bewilderment and contempt: It was typical nonsense from the commentator, and emblematic of the fact that the hype-machine element of Sky’s football coverage veered into duplicitous self-parody a long time ago.
With the arrival this season of flashy new kids on the block BT Sport, much has been said about the tug-of-war between the two broadcasting behemoths tasked with beaming a nation its football each weekend, but if the new pretenders are to take anything from the Sky establishment – and there’s plenty to be learnt, both good and bad – they should note that self-promotion need only be applied subtly and sparingly. Or else, like Parry on Sunday afternoon, you just end up looking silly.
Sky, on the other hand, would do well to appreciate that, in Britain, it has the attentions – and subscriptions – of an island whose inhabitants need little excuse to watch football, to (occasionally) enjoy it, and to tune in next time. We don’t need the false pretense of a ‘titanic clash’ in order to take an interest in mid-table, end-of-season kickabout between Liverpool and Newcastle, nor do we willingly swallow the lie that a club can be ‘ruled out of the title race’ on account of being six points off the top in February. It’s all vaguely patronising, and, being a fallen empire now populated by 62 million acutely irritable people, being needlessly patronised by corporate giants is not something Britain is likely to take kindly to. We’ll watch anyway, of course, because it’s still fun, but I imagine most fans would rather they weren’t openly lead up the garden path in the process.
It’s the most transparent of ploys: Sky are after our subscriptions, and so they try and make their product seem as attractive as possible. And as a notion, there’s nothing much wrong with that – the free market is the free market, after all, and Mr Murdoch has got to make ends meet somehow. But to implant drama and narrative where none exists is not just undignified but plainly fraudulent. Cardiff’s win on Sunday was as exciting as it was hilarious, but what it wasn’t was unprecedented – upsets have existed as long as sport itself, and Manchester City have always been Manchester City. As Frazier Campbell wheeled off to celebrate with the home fans, to hear Parry’s claims to the contrary only served to undermine an otherwise thrilling moment.
Sky should realise that, in the business of football broadcasting, the actual football pretty much promotes itself, and their role in this whole circus is to deliver the best, most interesting coverage possible. And in fairness to Sky, when they’re good, they’re pretty damn good. Gary Neville, as we all know, is rarely anything less than fascinating, and his new partnership with Jamie Carragher looks to have the makings of going one better, with the pair’s humour and, hopefully, debate, likely making for essential viewing and certainly marking a welcome departure from the opinion-free zone that is Match of the Day. Andy Gray, too – difficult as it is to recall in these post-Massey days – was often an astute analyst, offering genuine tactical and practical insight, despite the habitual lapses into Premier League spokesperson-mode. Sky’s relentless rhetoric regarding the football itself is, in short, unnecessary.
It’s also, surely, somewhat self-defeating. We tend not to buy things off people who we know are shamelessly hawking them to us – it’s why we hang up on Indian cold-callers named “James” without second thought and receive conveniently-timed phone calls when our path to the tube station has been blocked by a squadron of charity fundraisers. Similarly, when, for the zillionth time since the dawn of man (also known as 1992) Parry ‘asks’ his co-commentator whether the day’s halfway-entertaining fixture has offered “yet more proof that this really is the best league in the world”, it’s fair to say that our collective inclination to renew our subscriptions has seen stronger moments.
So far, we’ve done so anyway, largely because we’ve had little choice in the matter: Sky have used their financial muscle to effectively monopolise the market and so it’s essentially been them or nothing. The closest thing they’ve had to a challenger has been the swatting aside of ESPN and Setanta, both of whom underwent brief stints around the peripheries.
If you’re to believe the whispers, though, BT Sport are a different matter, and are here to stay. Though I can’t promise a titanic clash, it will indeed be interesting to see how the contest plays out – inasmuch as a corporate battle can be – but if Sky are to retain their throne, they’d be well advised to raise their game, lower their hype, and start treating their audience like something other than gullible cheque-signers.