Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Football and the Internet

This is a time, in football as much as almost any other “entertainment product”, when format, medium and emerging methods of content delivery are paid almost as much attention as the material we enjoy through them. This is strange, as they’re not particularly glamorous subjects. The central issues are bound up in technology, finance and law – a far cry from the concerns of the average punter who simply wants to watch a game of football, listen to an album, watch a film, play a video game or read a book. But their importance cannot be denied.

Every part of the entertainment industry seems to have its digital conundrum: the music industry’s struggle to adapt to the digital revolution in the early part of this decade allowed for a culture of illegal music downloading to flourish and for major labels and retailers to almost completely miss the boat in terms of working out how to charge for music that was no longer tangible and could be copied an infinite number of times with no loss of quality, suffering a massive decline in sales of CDs and records in the process.

The film industry however, would probably argue that it has been hit hardest – financially at least – as many people have turned away from the chronically overpriced (and, in my opinion, overvalued) multiplex experience in order to download DVD-quality films in a matter of minutes over a decent broadband connection. Re-introducing gimmicks like 3D to the theatres aside, Hollywood has yet to properly work how to combat the public’s natural “like having stuff but don’t like paying for stuff” mentality.

And the world of book publishing (the industry I’m most closely involved in professionally) is currently running around like a whole farmyard of headless chickens in an attempt to stay ahead of the digital curve – their problem being the great uncertainty as to how the market will approach even the idea of ‘e-books’. While for films and music the shift to digitisation was simply about changing format, bringing books into the 21st century involves a fundamental change in the way people assimilate the written word.

Books as we know them have been around far, far longer than film, music, computer games or the internet put together (and, notably, have survived the newcomers’ existence in terms of sustained popularity and usefulness) and there doesn’t seem to be a mass of people crying out to publishers and manufacturers to free them from the drudgery of the printed page. If the closely guarded (and reportedly laughable) sales figures of the Amazon Kindle and other assorted e-readers are to be believed, books may be one medium that survives the chaotic – yet hugely significant – shift towards all things digital.

So what about football? Which of these three case studies is the game most likely to resemble in the coming months and years?

Certainly the advent of the internet has already made a difference to the way fans experience football – and not just so-called ‘armchair’ fans either. Outside of Sky Sports News, the internet is the primary source of news, transfer gossip and interviews for even the tiniest clubs all over the world. There is barely a football club on the planet without a dedicated website, well-used fan forum and painstakingly-compiled set of historical statistics: when über-nerd meets football it is quite a sight to behold, believe me. And if you don’t believe me, try googling any club, footballer, manager, stadium or even match that comes into your head. There’ll be something there.

More recently, this is largely due to video sites like YouTube. They have made an enormous difference to the way ordinary fans perceive the game and, much more importantly, allows them to see footage of players and teams in action that would never have been possible before. Once upon a time the average English football fan, clearly unable to afford to jet around the continent every weekend, would have to rely on the odd televised European game, TV shows like the much-missed Gazzetta Football Italia (hands up if you just heard someone scream "goooooolaccio" in your head) and World Cup-themed montages of foreign players in action – everything else was hearsay; fans had to take the experts at their word.

These days if you even hear a player’s name mentioned, chances are there’ll be some footage of him on YouTube. It might be fuzzy footage camcordered from Argentinian television, edited by a 14-year-old child and backed with appalling techno music, but you can actually see what all the fuss is about. Great goals from the past, great matches, amusing moments, Sepp Blatter falling over at a press conference, they’re all there – as well as clips from all levels of the game, all over the world. Never has the football fan been better informed or better equipped to back up his or her argument about the greatest free kick ever scored, the greatest ever celebration or the funniest clip of the FIFA president falling over (there’s only one, and it’s bloody brilliant) with decent, archived footage.

There are also, of course, numerous sites that allow fans to watch live games from all over the world – and certainly not always legally. This has always been possible through dubious means (most of us have, at some point, been into a less-than-salubrious pub on a Saturday at 3pm and seen live Premiership football accompanied by enthusiastic, non-English commentary) and probably always will – but the ways of getting round complicated and constantly evolving rights laws are myriad these days and much harder to clamp down on.

Recently, in England at least, this went official for a big game for the first time – England’s penultimate World Cup qualifier away to Ukraine. Following the demise of Setanta, broadcast rights had been sold off to an online company who charged viewers £4.99 each to watch a live stream of the match on their site – and, more importantly, this was the only way to see the game. Like Amazon’s Kindle figures, it seems suspicious that the exact number of subscribers was never revealed, though it looks clear that broadcasts of this type will continue. But is it really how we will all be watching football in the future?

I’m not so sure – I can’t imagine sitting in front of my computer for a whole football game, legal or not, although one can imagine that this will soon be streamable to TV sets and, hopefully, into pubs. I’m not sure pay per view is the answer either – as people will always find a way round it as long as broadcast rights deals remain specific to territories and the internet remains borderless.

It is for certain that football is not immune from the ‘digital revolution’ – it’s highly commercial nature and massive popularity has more or less ensured that – but to me it seems similar to the publishing industry’s situation, which basically boils down to a version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Football fans are happy to watch the games they can’t see live on their televisions – and even more happy to pay as little as possible to do so. The game is not crying out for an online solution, but it has been provided all the same. I just hope, as I do for books, films and music, that embracing new ways of enjoying the game does not take anything away from those we already have.

Right, I’m off to watch that Blatter video again. And maybe a couple of Zidane clips…


  1. I wrote a story recently about the Kindle E-Book reader recently. It has a very fragile screen,making it hard to travel with and Amazon helpfully sell a a screen protector for it.

    One problem - the screen protector actually snaps the Kindle if you use it for more than about six weeks. Amazon's solution is ingenious - buy a new Kindle at a slightly reduced rate, and get a new built in obsolescence device (aka screen "protector") for free!

    E-Books might become en vogue - but I think a dedicated reader - like a dedicated music or video player - is likely to always remain a niche product.

  2. I agree, I think if e-books take off at all it'll be as an application of another device - in all likelihood through some sort of killer iPhone app. I can see iTunes music store stocking books in the next couple of years.

    That Kindle problem sounds outrageous - though sadly 'built-in obsolesence' does seem to be what keeps the tech industry going...