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Celebrating 30 years of the Premier League

BY Danny Harvey

10th Oct 2022 Sport

Celebrating 30 years of the Premier League

Thirty years on from the creation of the FA Premier League, Danny Harvey reflects on the origins of football and how things have changed

The dulcet tones of Simple Minds playing in the background, a sexy Swede being brought breakfast in bed and half a dozen rugged, mustachioed top-level football players rubbing each other down in the shower—back in the days before players waxed their chests or wore Alice bands to keep their hair out of their eyes.  

Whilst this may sound like the beginning of an extremely niche adult film, it was actually an advert to signal the beginning of regular live football for many across the UK. “It's a whole new ball game,” a voice told us, as a mystery man jumped to win a header in front of a beautiful cloudy backdrop, sun poking around the edges, summoning sentiments of new beginnings. Coinciding with the creation of the FA Premier League, Sky TV had secured exclusive rights to broadcast the top flight of English football, taking it away from the freeview terrestrial channels for the very first time on their own subscriber-based channel. 

A major gamble 

This was quite the gamble, with the company struggling to attract clientele, and struggling to turn over a profit. Far from a foregone conclusion at the time that a pay-per-view system would take off, many predicted that the company, founded by Rupert Murdoch, would be left broken and bankrupt by the deal, with many people prepared to boycott the corporation in protest at football not being free to view. In other words, this was a roll of the dice that had to pay off for Sky, who were losing £10 million per week. 

In order to guarantee their success, they had to attract as many punters as possible. They had to make the newly founded Premier League seem as big, bold and glamorous as they could. They had to create a new era of football in England, a new dawn. They nailed it. The advert signaled the start of a new era, with the growing commercialisation of football and all the glitz, glamour and razzmatazz that came with it.  

Hype was the order of the day, something that Sky Sports would take as their mantra, snowballing to the extent that we see in the modern day where players cannot do something as innocuous as take a piss or volley a cat without being splashed all over the internet or having a TV special dedicated to it.

And, to do this, the absolute pinnacle of ideas on the drawing board was…to have Peter Reid deliver an underwhelming pre-match speech, David Seaman saving a kid’s penalty that he’d absolutely skied over the two-foot-high crossbar and some incredible footage of representatives of each of the 22 clubs half naked working up a sweat in a steamy gym. 

Vinnie Jones struts around the gaff throughout, looking every inch the man preparing himself for his imminent career in Hollywood, while Bruce Grobbelaar practices a few tricks, rolling the ball from shoulder to shoulder. Gordon Strachan appears to be utterly bemused by a pair of trainers as Vinnie uses a hairbrush to replicate a Hitler-esque moustache.  

The advert peaks, however, with David Hirst and Carl Bradshaw showing an incredible lack of camera presence whilst getting their respective Sheffield clubs’ shirts mixed up. Those bloody jokers ey!  

What was football like in the beginning?

Before football became a whole entire entertainment industry, it was a simple sport. Two teams, a ball, two goals and you’re good to go. In fact, you didn’t even need that much back in “the good ol’ days”. Back then whole villages played against whole villages, with miles long battles leaving a trail of destruction, broken bones and the occasional death in their wake.

A far cry from the game we know and love today (or know and vehemently despise, if you’re an Everton fan), the object of this bloody and brutal sport was usually to get the ball to the captain of the neighbouring village’s house, by any means necessary. As there were no other rules, bodies were often put on the line, tackling style was more similar to rugby and the use of hands were permitted. It must have been a piece of p**s for referees. Peter Walton still probably would have managed to make the wrong call, mind you. 

Whilst football has moved on somewhat since the blood-filled 14th century, with the exception of Stoke City under Tony Pulis’ tutelage, it was only in 1863 that a definitive set of rules were put in place. The posh boys from the public schools had taken to playing the game whilst away at their various boarding schools, all with slightly different rules. Due to their reluctance to leave the game behind to their adolescence, they began to establish their own teams in order to continue playing, but quickly became tired of trying to play matches against sides literally playing by different rules.

Defining the “rules” of football

To combat the different rules, the inaugural meeting of what would later become the Football Association took place and a definitive set of rules was finalised.

The newly published rules were originally intended to supervise just a few clubs, but things quickly snowballed, and football began to seep through to the working classes, much to the distain of the toffs who wanted to keep it to “the elite”.  

It was here, amidst the smog-filled backdrop of the Second Industrial Revolution, that the beautiful game really began to metastasize, as the working classes clung onto anything that allowed them to escape the mundane, monotonous cycle that was their 12-hour, six day working week down the mine or in a factory.  

It was with these people in mind, those that would become the devoted, football adoring fans from whom we are all descended, that in 1888 The Football League was founded, with games kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon due to factories deigning to allow their employees a half day. 

England national football team 1895

England national football team, 1895 © Public domain

From then on, it was pretty much plain sailing. We had our rules, we had our leagues, we had our cups and that was that. Sure, there were odd little tweaks here and there. For example, the offside rule would go through several iterations before the powers were finally happy and decided to st—oh wait, they still haven’t stopped playing around with that one.  

One thing that did change, however, was football moving with the technological advances of the day. Odd games and tournaments had been broadcast as television became more and more readily available to the masses, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that football league matches were screened with any sense of regularity.  

The age of television deals

Who would have thought, during those mass brawls in the Middle Ages, that one day in the very distant future such a thing would be possible—watching the game live from the comfort of your own home.  

Of course, there were a few hoops to jump through and false dawns to contend with until that was readily accessible. One of these was during a league game at Highbury between Arsenal and Sheffield United way back in January, 1927, when the BBC spotted a gap in the market and the first ever live radio broadcast of a football match occurred. A disappointing 1-1 draw, if you were wondering. 

1927 FA Cup programme

1927 FA Cup programme © Public domain

While live radio broadcasts continued over the next couple of years, allowing fans to tune in and have the action described for them, the Football League became increasingly concerned about declining attendance figures. In 1931 a ban on live broadcasts was imposed. This would continue until the aftermath of the Second World War.  

The first live televised game occurred just before the war began, with historic enemies England and Scotland continuing the oldest rivalry in international football on April 9, 1938. The BBC had trialed showing a few minutes of live games previously, but this was the first time that they had been able to negotiate approval from the FA to broadcast a full game to the fans at home as a trial run for the 1938 FA Cup final between Sunderland and Preston.  

"It sounds farfetched but it's true—people would actually watch Sunderland of their own free will back in the Thirties!"

With the experiment deemed a success, the BBC bigwigs (and Scotland fans) went home happy, secure in the knowledge that the biggest game in world football would be appearing live on TV screens across the nation. I know it sounds farfetched now, but it is true. People would actually watch Sunderland of their own free will back in the Thirties! 

For a while this was as good as it got for those who were unable to get out onto the terraces, with the FA Cup final the only match of the calendar year to be televised nationally throughout the Fifties. Highlights of random games were sporadically broadcast, but not with any regularity until the launch of a TV programme that needs no introduction: Match of the Day. The longest running football TV show of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, began in 1964—back when current host and serial crisp scranner Gary Lineker was just a young whippersnapper.  

This was soon followed by ITV’s own regional highlights package in 1968, and given the lack of competition, BBC and ITV developed a duopoly over TV rights that lasted until the late Seventies. In 1968, they paid just £120,000 for broadcasting rights, which was split evenly between each of the 92 Football League clubs, netting each club a meagre £1,300 across the season. Or, in modern day terms, about half an hour's work for Lionel Messi. Things did improve somewhat over the next decade, increasing to an inconceivably mind-blowing £534,000, or £5,800 per club. 

Fast forward to 1984 and the regular live coverage of league matches occurred for the first time, with the Football League signing a two-year deal that included the broadcast of ten live games for £2.6 million per season. Things went swimmingly for all of 18 months, when live coverage was suspended after negotiations regarding a contract renewal broke down.

Football gets political 

Due to the poor financial situation English football had found itself in, all the power lay in the hands of the broadcasters. After a short standoff, a deal was agreed consisting of £3.1 million for the rights to 14 matches, less per game than the deal that preceded it. This was also the first contract that violated the equal distribution agreement, with 50 per cent of the money going to First Division clubs, 25 per cent to Second Division, whilst third and fourth tier clubs received 12.5 per cent to split between them. 

In 1988, ITV broke away from their alliance with the BBC in time to secure exclusive rights to show 18 games per season for the next four years up until 1992 for the princely sum of £11 million per year. As a further sign of football breaking away from the equality and fair play on which the sport had been built, the threat from leading clubs to withdraw from the football league and start up their own, exclusive competition led to them securing a settlement that saw almost 75 per cent of the ITV money going into the already wealthy pockets of top tier clubs. Of this, more than 40 per cent was shared amongst the “Big Five”: Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United. 

"The introduction of rival satellite broadcasters BSB and Sky resulted in a shift in bargaining power"

The “Big Five” were receiving over one third of the television coverage, and so believed that it was unfair that the television money should be evenly distributed, even across the division, and had already withdrawn from the common practice of sharing gate receipts as greed took over. This allowed the concentration of income for those clubs with larger grounds to get even greater. 

While the lack of any bidder outside of the BBC and ITV duopoly, and their tendency to collude, had kept deals relatively low up until now, the introduction of two rival satellite broadcasters such as BSB and Sky meant there was finally someone willing to contest with the traditional terrestrial channels. This resulted in a shift in bargaining power, as competition between TV companies escalated.  

Following the merger between BSB and Sky, imperative for the survival of both companies who had been hemorrhaging money, the newly founded British Sky Broadcasting group had decided that football was the answer to all of their troubles. When the biggest clubs decided that enough was enough, something they had spoken about previously with ITV head honcho Greg Dyke, and decided to break away from the rest of the Football League in order to gain commercial independence and create the FA Premier League, a bidding war of unprecedented proportions occurred.  

Murdoch signed a ground-breaking television deal with the FA for exclusive rights to the Premier League for a then-astronomical figure of £304 million over the subsequent three years. He also took the unprecedented step of making live televised football only available to subscribers, marking a new era for the sport.  

While this is chicken feed in comparison to the figures we see getting thrown about now, the growth of football as we know it would have been impossible were it not for the foundations laid in this colossal deal. In line with the increase in quality of football, wages and transfer fees, with clubs now being owned by entire countries rather than local wheeler dealers, it makes sense that TV deals have continued to increase as well, with the Premier League set to receive over £10 billion for the first time ever in the upcoming three-year cycle according to The Times. With international deals worth £5.3 billion and domestic deals worth £5.1 billion, I bet ITV wouldn’t be too happy about competing with that now! 

“Blow them out the water” 

While the Premier League now has an intrinsic relationship with Sky TV, with all its “Super Sunday’s” and “Monday Night Football”s, it was nearly all so different. Although talk of the elite English clubs splintering off to create their own league had been rife since the mid-Eighties, the first time an official meeting took place was in 1990. Greg Dyke, managing director of London Weekend Television, an ITV subsidiary, met with representatives of the “Big Five” clubs.  

The idea behind the meeting was to discuss ITV’s proposal that showing only the crème de la crème of English football would increase viewing figures, and therefore bring in more dosh for both the TV company and for those elite clubs selected for the vast majority of televised fixtures.  

The meeting consisted of David Dein from Arsenal, Noel White from Liverpool, Phillip Carter from Everton, Martin Edwards from Man United and Irving Scholar from Spurs. They informed Dyke that, of course, they were greedy b******s who would be more than receptive of the idea to do a number on the other clubs in the football league pyramid in order to ensure their respective clubs made a bit more money. Or words to that effect anyway. 

Arsenal chairman David Dein

While initial plans of a breakaway were confirmed, they first had to get the Football Association on board to give their plan any credibility. This task was delegated to the Arsenal chairman David Dein, who met with the FA bigwigs in order to see whether they were receptive to the idea. As the FA had a far from harmonious relationship with the Football League at the time, they agreed on a move to weaken their standing.  

At the beginning of 1991, they released their “Blueprint for the Future of Football”, which detailed plans for their intentions for the future of the Premier League and their unequivocal support. The blueprint would allow the Premier League to sell its own broadcasting rights, completely autonomously of the arrangements of the Football League and their remaining 70 clubs. More and more clubs jumped onboard with the “Big Five”, until it reached the point that any opposition was futile. The 22 top flight clubs announced their resignation from the Football League in 1992, and it was confirmed. The launch of the Premier League was upon us. 

Choosing channels 

The only question that remained was which channel ticketless fans were going to be able to get their footballing fix. With the day of the vote set for May, 1992, ITV and Sky quickly became the forerunners, with the BBC effectively bowing out early on. Sky moved quickly, and chief executive Sam Chisholm formed an alliance, offering BBC access to the highlights package to continue to broadcast the long running Match of the Day.  

ITV submitted an offer of £205 million, before hitting the panic button following Chisholm’s convincing pitch to the chairmen of the Premier League clubs. Upping their bid to £262 million for a five-year deal on the day of the vote, Dyke was confident that his vision to bring the Prem to ITV was all but secure. What he hadn’t accounted for was CEO of the Premier League Rick Parry, who would later go on to be chief executive at Liverpool, advising his preferred choice of Chisholm and Sky to increase their bid.  

"The only question that remained was which channel ticketless fans were going to be able to get their footballing fix"

Lord Alan Sugar, Spurs chairman at the time (back in the days before he was able to use the internet for controversial tweets), was also in communication with Sky. He already had a relationship with the channel due to his electronics firm, Amstrad, being the only company that had gambled upon the success of Sky and agreed to manufacture their satellite dishes. Sugar had admitted to a conflict of interest and volunteered for Tottenham to abstain from voting, but despite protests from Man United and Arsenal, the meeting agreed that Spurs should be eligible to vote. 

Trevor East, ITV’s head of footballing broadcast, would later see Sugar on his phone, letting whoever was on the other end know that ITV had upped their bid last minute and they needed to “blow them out the water”. While Sugar denied this phone call even happened for many years, he would later confirm that it was Chisholm on the other end, and proudly declare that it was “the phone call that irrevocably altered the history of sport and media in Britain.” 

Sky came back in with a new offer of £304 million, blowing ITV out of the water. Rick Parry advised clubs to accept the joint offer, which they did fourteen to six, with two abstentions. Ironically, four of the "Big Five" that had made it all possible had been in favour of siding with ITV, with just Spurs voting in favour of Sky. An incandescent Dyke threatened legal action against both Sky and the Premier League in a manner reminiscent of a screaming baby kicking all their toys out of the pram and accused the BBC of being “Murdoch’s poodle”. 

Like them or loathe them (and certainly a lot of people loathed them at the time), Sky have become synonymous with the Premier League and have brought with it a hell of a lot of hype. It is now incomparable to the sport they took over in the early Nineties, thanks to the increase in TV deals allowing English clubs to compete against the richest in the world in terms of wages and transfer fees, and the influx of the best players across the continent. It really is a whole new ball game!

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