Monday, 22 February 2010


As I have confessed previously on this blog, I am not the sort of football fan who actually goes to a lot of games. I support a Big Four club which, despite being based in the city I live in (albeit at the other side of it), is prohibitively expensive to watch live, even in the case of low-interest Carling Cup ties or dead rubber Champions League group stage matches. It’s a disgrace, of course, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. The fact that the live games I get to watch are few and far between (both in terms of time and geography – this season I’ve taken in a grand total of three matches; two in London, one in Bulgaria) has left me thinking a lot recently about how I, and many millions of fans like me, consume football these days.

As I write, Arsenal are playing away at Porto in the Champions League last 16, first leg. Due to various factors, including a despicably unreliable national cable TV supplier having failed to install their service in my new house after almost seven weeks* of waiting, I am watching it via an old-fashioned external aerial (and for all the good its ‘signal-boosting power supply’ claims to be, I may as well have stuck a coathanger in the back of the telly) through a haze of constantly undulating, mesmerising visual noise. The scoreboard routinely disappears off the top of the screen and the colours that make it through, other than the ubiquitous green of the pitch, are at best approximations of the shades actually on display all those miles away in the Estadio do Dragao. No matter – it’s the football, not the coverage that matters, right?

Last night, by contrast, I watched AC Milan being humbled by Manchester United in glorious Sky HD on a very respectable 37-or-so-inch Samsung screen. It was dazzling – like having a mere sheet of glass between myself and Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum. Every bitter expletive from the grizzled Scot’s mouth was in jaw-dropping, era-defining, slow-motion high definition. The really shocking thing is that Sky HD is no longer the pinnacle of the remote football-watching experience. Last month Sky launched Sky Sports 3D at a select few pubs in the UK for the Arsenal v Man United Premier League encounter – and as one of the many people not invited to any of the events, my lasting impression remains a single TV advert showing a pub full of astounded men wearing dark glasses, bathed in the glow of the Future – like a collection of shady US government officials witnessing the test detonation of a nuclear weapon. Apparently the service will be rolled out across hundreds of other pubs across country come April.

I should also add that in addition to the fuzzy wonderland of ITV’s coverage in Porto, I’m watching Bayern Munich v Fiorentina live on my iPhone via Sky Mobile. This really rather spectacular little app lets me watch Sky Sports 1, 2, 3, Xtra, News and ESPN live – in bafflingly high quality – for only £6 per month. There doesn’t seem to be much of a catch: OK so I can’t have a group of friends over to gather round the little screen to watch Premier League and Champions League games, but I can hide away in the corner of the living room watching live games on headphones while the other half watches Come Dine With Me* – and to me that’s a bit of a revelation and well worth the price of a couple of pints. When I wrote about football and the internet last year at the time of the England V Ukraine World Cup qualifier, I had in mind individual fans being forced to watch blocky YouTube-style feeds on obscure, overpriced websites. It seems I might have been wroing – this particular service even works well via 3G coverage, meaning it can be watched when I’m out of the house (if not, sadly, when on the tube). If online live TV is the way things are headed, Sky Mobile seems to be a genuinely viable option.

Of course, not every game is live on Sky Sports, nor on ESPN, the BBC or ITV. The Premier League’s rules regarding the broadcast of 3pm Saturday kick-offs still apply (though it remains strangely difficult to find out exactly why, particularly in terms of the huge potential commercial value in selling said matches to broadcasters). As a result, the vast majority of football coverage is consumed – by myself and most other fans – in purely non-visual format, whether in the form of online live text updates, TV shows like Sky’s Soccer Saturday and the BBC’s Score or simply by catching up on results and reports in the newspaper the following day. This distance between the event and the fan is an interesting one – especially when it is legally enforced or based on obscure clauses in broadcast rights contracts – as it gives rise to some bizarre behaviour by fans and broadcasters alike.

Firstly, the idea of staring at an empty scoreboard, waiting for it to fill with numbers and then ascribing meaning to them is fairly absurd on its own. Looking at a list of scoreboards from an entire day’s events, waiting for them to be confirmed and assimilating the information dispassionately also seems to be a strange way of engaging with an ‘entertainment product’ as visual and visceral as football – nevertheless I, and many others, do it every single weekend.

The strangest of all, however, must be Soccer Saturday. One of Sky Sports’ most popular shows (not least because it is broadcast free-to-air on Sky Sports News), Soccer Saturday has, among other things, made a cult hero of presenter Jeff Stelling and inspired a host of Soccer Saturday drinking games. The fact that it consists entirely of Stelling reading out scores from the vidiprinter as they come in (albeit in an entertaining and delightfully pun-riddled fashion); live links from match reporters who, despite being at the ground, seem to be facing the opposite way from the rest of the crowd in order to watch (and become hopelessly confused by) the action on a small monitor; and a collection of ageing former pros watching matches that are being televised elsewhere on screens the viewer can’t see, occasionally yelling “Goal!”, “Chance!” or “GO ON LAD!” (if one of the clubs playing happens to be one they used to play for) and ineptly attempting to describe what they’ve just seen. It sounds bizarre because it is – and I can’t imagine another world in which it could take place. Needless to say, I love it.

There is a huge amount of choice available to the ‘armchair’ football fan in need of their fix – and it seems, like so many things, to be a question of finance as to how close one can get to the action. If you can’t afford to go to the game, you watch Sky Sports and Match of the Day. If you can’t afford Sky Sports, you rig up the coathanger and (occasionally) watch teams playing in a blizzard of your own creation. And if all else fails, you can watch the cogs turning behind Paul Merson’s furrowed brow as he attempts to describe a Wigan near miss or a dubious Bolton penalty. It’s unbelievable, Jeff.

No comments:

Post a Comment