A glimpse of the future.
In 2016 (or 2017, or even 2018), English football supporters will be outraged when Wolverhampton Wanderers (or Hull City, or Wigan Athletic) sell the exclusive television rights to their home matches to Vodafone (or O2, or whatever brand emerges from the Orange/T-Mobile merger). Questions will be asked in Parliament; spleens will be vented. And, once the sound and the fury has abated, life will go on, and people will go back to grumbling about the price of a pint and why we haven’t had a decent summer in years.
A version of this diverting scenario has been unfolding this week, with the international sports agency Kentaro announcing that, as bids for the Ukraine/England footie game tonight were not forthcoming from any UK broadcasters, then fans would only be able to access the game via the Internet. Cue end of civilisation as we know it.
Well, maybe not the end of civilisation, but certainly the end of sports broadcasting. We are on the cusp of the largest shake-up in sporting rights since BSkyB drove a coach and horses through the UK terrestrial broadcasters duopoly in the early 1990s. But whether this shakeup comes via the Internet or the mobile handset, there are a number of issues to be addressed. The first is bandwidth: Kentaro has capped the number of customers who will be able to watch the game at one million, so that quality of service will be unaffected. I would argue that this admission in itself is a reason that FIFA and UEFA should step in: it is all very well closing the gates at the stadium when all the tickets are sold, but when in addition you start slamming the doors on the virtual supporters (and at a ridiculously low level) then one might suggest that not only does this raise the question of whether the stream is adequate, but that it answers it as well, and answers in the negative. Quality of service is fair enough, but quantity matters too. (For the putative mobile licensee in 2016, I would add that extent of service coverage should also be a key criterion in determining suitability: sure, all the operators will have LTE networks by that stage, but will they offer service in Winchester and Eastleigh?)
The second point raised by the current imbroglio is that while Odeon cinemas will be screening the game, public houses will not. I have never yet been to an Odeon to watch a sporting event, but am happy to say that the Coach & Horses, Bull, Four Chesnuts, Chequers, Mitre and Globe have all benefitted from my custom during such time as our footballing and rugby-playing heroes have been plying their respective trades upon their television screens. Call me old-fashioned, but I would venture to suggest the majority of the football-loving public would prefer a pint to popcorn.
This is not to decry the Internet model, simply to say that in this particular instance the combination of bandwidth constraints – and venue selection – have combined to produce a less-than-perfect solution. And to take each of these issues in turn: bandwidth constraints would certainly not be an issue for, say, the overwhelming majority of club games (or even internationals involving the other home nations), besides which bandwidth capacity continues to increase, so that the next time the broadcasters decide not to bid for an England game we should hopefully be at a point where there is considerably less risk of being locked out on our own desktops. As for the second issue, well, pubs put up satellite dishes to get Sky, now all they need to do is dig out an Ethernet cable or two.
Let us return to the scenario I outlined at the beginning of this article: a number of clubs already have their own TV channels; many have deals with mobile network operators permitting customers of those networks to download exclusive videos and wallpapers. If the current system of collective bargaining agreements for Premiership rights transitions to the model operating in Italy, whereby individual clubs sell their rights to the broadcasters, then it might well be that some football clubs feel that they can get the best deal from the mobile networks.
And suddenly Molineux belongs to Vodafone.
(Or O2. Or T-Orange.)