The Argument: Is There Too Much Football on TV?
When did being a football fan start to feel like such hard work? It’s not that there’s more football in the world than there used to be. What’s changed is the availability and exposure of it all. Anybody with the right sort of television package, mobile phone contract or internet connection should never go more than 24 hours without a game to watch. Live football dominates the sports channels’ schedules throughout the weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night and into Monday. Then the Champions League and Europa League pick up the slack between Tuesday and Thursday along with cup ties, replays, and seemingly endless midweek rounds in the Championship.
All of it is televised. Watching football is a seven-day-a-week commitment if you want it to be. And, if you’re handing over a not insignificant amount of money to Sky and BT, or both, you feel compelled to make the effort. Even if you like football – and why pay for the channels otherwise? – that Mitchell and Webb sketch from almost ten years ago feels closer to the truth than ever. “It is impossible to keep track of all the football,” it warns, “but your best chance is here.”
The point is, you really can’t keep track of it all. One evening you’ll be invited out somewhere, or have to work late, or maybe your housemates will just want to watch an old episode of Columbo instead (“Negative Reaction” featuring Dick Van Dyke comes recommended). Whatever it is, there’ll be a game on somewhere that you’re going to miss. Except, maybe you won’t. You could follow what people are saying about it on Twitter or watch the highlights later on. Wait until the morning and you can read about it in the paper, or it’ll be discussed on a podcast later in the week. If you want to find out what happened, and why, you can certainly make the effort.
But why? That game’s over; there’s another one on tonight. You know you really should see that goal you missed, though, and judge for yourself whether the defending was as bad as people were saying. If you haven’t seen it, how can you have an opinion on it? And everybody needs to have an opinion, right? So you read a match report, google a highlights video, and make up your mind. You’re not really sure why you should care but you feel like you should try, so you do.
It didn’t used to be this way. The start of the Premier League in 1992 was the big bang moment for television coverage of football in Britain but initially a modest two matches per week were shown live. Sky had a highlights package on Sunday mornings, as they still do, but Match of the Day remained how most people kept on top of things. Unless you could fathom how to use the timer on the VHS player, though, the only way to see that Saturday’s goals was to be at home when the programme started. Although ITV had the rights to the Champions League, with just a single channel and no red button option they could only show one game on a Wednesday night, inevitably involving Manchester United, and always to the chagrin of Coronation Street fans who had to wait until a quarter to ten to catch their show.
Football still had a prominent presence on television 20 years ago but if you missed a game when it was on you did so comfortable in the knowledge you could never see it again. There was no anxiety about catching up and less fear of missing out. What’s more, you were only expected to be aware of what was happening in the top four divisions in England and, if pushed, how many points Rangers were ahead by in Scotland. Channel 4’s coverage of Italian football was a wonderful addition to the weekend’s viewing, especially for those without access to Sky, and it left a generation in awe of players like Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and Faustino Asprilla, but the live game on Sunday felt more like a fun backdrop to lunch than an instruction to become an expert on a foreign league.
Although Serie A became harder to watch after it left terrestrial screens in 2002, ending up tucked away on the Bravo channel in between repeats of Knight Rider at one stage, it’s since found a home on BT Sport along with the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Portuguese league. Sky has been broadcasting La Liga games for two decades and, in response to BT’s encroachment into Premier League coverage and huge investment in European football, now routinely makes all matches in Spain available to watch live. Given how the kick-off times are spread out one after the other, you could feasibly devote the equivalent of two days’ waking hours to watching Spanish football. The MLS and Australian A-League both receive regular coverage on Sky and BT, respectively, their late night and early morning scheduling topping and tailing the weekend’s viewing for the most dedicated of all.
The choice is brilliant but terrifying. Having that many games thrust at you every week, the words that taunt Homer Simpson when he’s condemned to hell’s Ironic Punishment Division spring to mind: “So you like football, eh? Well, have all the football in the world!”
With all that football out there, it’s only natural for it to be the subject of not just newspapers and magazines but blogs, podcasts and dedicated YouTube channels. On Twitter, football in all its incarnations is there being discussed in perpetuity for you to dip in and out of whenever you choose. It’s now perfectly possible to have a conversation with somebody online about the Austrian top flight, if that’s your thing, that goes into much greater depth than the average chat about the Premier League at work. Simply following your own team and whatever division they’re in no longer seems enough. The pressure to recall who won the Eredivisie last season or to name the top scorer in Germany remains, lest you feel inferior. The knowledge is available if you want to seek it out, and people do. But would you be any less of a fan if you didn’t bother?