Rory Cellan-Jones

Learning from the Premier League

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 11 May 09, 09:00 GMT

What will you pay for these days in terms of news and entertainment?

This is a question that's troubling media executives around the world as they battle the twin threats of falling revenues and the spread of free content online, whether put there deliberately or "shared" by consumers.

And in the UK, they're turning for inspiration to one industry which has never been particularly web-savvy but which has shown that it can wring huge amounts of cash from consumers, and which doesn't appear to be suffering much from the recession. That industry is football.

Richard ScudamoreAmong the media barons named by the Sunday Times yesterday as pressing Lord Carter to impose a stronger anti-piracy code on internet service providers, I noticed Richard Scudamore's name. He runs not a record business, nor a newspaper or a TV channel, but the Premier League.

It has been extraordinarily successful in getting fans - largely via satellite TV subscriptions rather than at the turnstile - to pay, rather than expecting something for nothing.

While Mr Scudamore believes that his is a media content industry like any other, others across the media landscape have been eager to work out whether they can imitate football's success in turning content into cash.

So what's the recipe?

It seems to be all about providing compelling material that avid consumers really want - and making sure they can't get it elsewhere. I think it would be difficult for any fan to dispute that the quality of football played in the Premiership is better than what we saw 20 years ago. While the influx of the world's most talented players may or may not have damaged the England side, it's certainly improved the football played by the top teams.

Of course, that's happened because of the huge inflow of cash from one source - satellite television - which has paid for the transformation of the game. Over the last two decades, the financial health of BSkyB and that of the Premiership have marched in tandem. And both have worked hard to protect their content from reaching those not prepared to pay for it.

Sky's big investment in encryption technology has been pretty successful in limiting the numbers who can watch illicitly. In recent years, fans wanting to watch football without paying a satellite subscription have turned to the internet - but the Premier League has been vigorous in the defence of its copyright, notably in its ongoing lawsuit against YouTube.

It has ignored the fashionable doctrine that the important thing is to first get your product onto as many platforms as possible, and then to start thinking about how to make money.

Football, though, has one advantage over other media - fans are prepared to pay an awful lot more to see it live rather than waiting even a couple of hours for highlights. And one thing the beautiful game has never done - at least since it woke up to the value of its TV rights - is give anything away for free.

So can the newspaper, movie and music businesses learn anything by looking at the Premier League - can they too get consumers to pay for compelling content by making sure there are no alternative means to get it?

That will be hard because none has the monopoly power enjoyed by the Premier League, and all are struggling to build new fences around content which is already roaming free. True, music is finding that the one thing fans will pay for is "live" - more and more bands are now seeing albums as little more than marketing campaigns for their next tour.

But will newspaper buyers really pay to get breaking news? Only if it is not available elsewhere, and it's difficult to see the world's news providers, amateur and professional, all agreeing to move to a subscription model at once.

And before imitating the Premier League too closely, perhaps they should ask who has really benefited from the football boom. Most clubs still struggle to make a profit, and fans are paying a lot more at the ground and in their TV subscriptions.

So the real winners are the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Dider Drogba, whose £130,000-a-week salaries have been made possible by the Premiership's success in marketing its TV rights and protecting its copyright.

Music fans, news junkies and movie buffs are all benefiting hugely from online distribution - largely without paying. They will be hoping that other media industries don't learn too much from the Premier League.


  • Comment number 1.

    I don't agree with your analogy here. Its like comparing apples with oranges.

    Most football fans and supporters want to watch the game live, no matter where they are in the world. Fortunately for people in the UK they can either choose to go to the game or like others around the world watch it in the comfort of their arm chair or pub if they are privilaged to find it on local satellite channels.

    Not many people get as excited about watching a match after the game - especially if they already know the score. It is one of the main reasons why pirating football matches has never been popular on file sharing sites. Nothing to do at all with the Premiership getting tough with "YouTube" clips. There are plenty of other sites that show the highlights and match goals. You can also get matches streamed online - illegally - for those people who do not have access to satellite.

    It isn't like going to the movies!

  • Comment number 2.

    I think the success of Sky, Setanta et al is due to prices for an actual match being more for the infamous 'prawn sandwich brigade' than the real fans anymore. You only have to look at how many tickets for big matches are allocated to supporters, as opposed to besuited twonks who sponsor events.

    I'd rather pay to watch many matches live on telly than one match in the flesh for the same price. Ideally, I'd watch matches at the ground every week, but the modern way has alienated many fans (what proportion of purported Man U supporters do you think have actually seen a match?).

  • Comment number 3.

    The previous comments have hit the nail on the head - it's the live nature of Sky & Setanta's content that are the draws (both of which I subscribe to). I also have a season ticket at League 2 AFC Bournemouth and I wonder if I still would go along to watch if all their games were to be screened live? It will come one day and then I'll have a real dilemma.

    On another point I was thinking what else is there that I would consider paying for that currently isn't available? Live music concerts immediately sprang to mind and last week was a case in point. My wife is a Tom Jones fan and we've been a couple of times to see him in the past 5 years. When the latest tour was announced and the tickets went on sale the cheapest ones were £45 each - now we are in football ticket pricing territory. Imagine if someone were to launch the "Live Concert" channel for £5.99 / month with a couple of live events each week and re-runs of previous shows in between. I think a lot of people would be interested in that and I'm surprised it doesn't exist - but I guess the record compaines would have kittens about it. Just a thought!

  • Comment number 4.

    Football, along with banking, are two examples where mans greed come to the fore. They may be rich materially but, honourable exceptions permitting, they are morally destitute.

  • Comment number 5.

    The Premier League is a product in demand with limited supply and so can command high prices. What passes for news these days is ubiquitous. Paying for it is a non-starter as long as the BBC is funded by a licence scheme and long may that continue. The volume of anodyne new music and films touted to the mass market is such that they appear as bargain bin disposables, not worth the premium that the industry wish to charge.

  • Comment number 6.

    I gave up my sky subscription because I felt like the football I can get for free from the BBC and ITV are good enough to satisfy my appetite. Champions League football is better on average than premier league football (in my opinion) and as long as ITV have at least half the coverage then I won't pay Sky's over-enflated prices.

  • Comment number 7.

    Don't the 'media barons' understand that most people don't want what they're trying to sell?

    Most people have given up on newspapers because they are either pure celebrity gossip (Sun, Mirror) rabid opinion (Mail, Express) rather than news, and the papers that do contain news have such a high-brow attitude it puts off the normal reader (Guardian, Telegraph). Even online the BBC has turned investigative journalism into repackaging party political soundbites.

    Other media's the same, why spend £15 on the latest hollywood remake when you can buy the better original film for £3 from the bargin bin.

    People are prepared to pay for Premier League football because it's the best, how many people were willing to pay subscriptions to ITV digital (before it went bust) for the Championship games?

    Inferior products don't sell.

  • Comment number 8.

    If there was only one place on the web to read "news" stories and one had to pay for it, then I simply wouldn't bother reading the news anymore. What mainstream media deems worthy of reporting is largely web space filler anyway.

    As for the music industry, those with their fingers deepest in the pie are upset that they aren't making quite as many millions now as they used to. You have to feel for them though, it must be hard. I imagine they would rather the internet was never invented. Tough. It's here and millions of people are getting music for free. Ha ha.

    "The premiership" is a fine example of how a group of business men can turn something fun into a big wad of cash for themselves whilst ruining it for everyone else. We should thank them, we really should. Clever business men have shown us the way once again. Football is so much better now. Football shirts aren't embarrassingly cheap anymore and highly priced match tickets reduce the shame of attending such squalid events.

  • Comment number 9.

    Sport just isn't the same as the other media which is currently enjoying such freedom of distribution via the internet - The relevence of a single game to most people is enormous, but extremely short lived as the next week comes around very quickly.

    The result is that a single game has to be delivered live to be of any worth - of course highlights packages come later, but very soon after, and require a degree of editing down that prohibits individuals from offering such a service before the BBC's huge staff put match of the day together.

    Likewise one person (or even a group of people) in a ground could not produce anything like the quality of coverage offered live by the big broadcasters (with the obvious exception of channel 5) so to watch a match live you HAVE to go through one of these channels, and as they operate for a profit they will continue to ensure that they make it.

    The football model cannot be applied to any other media whos demand is not as immediate - and just as importantly instantly forgotten - no-one will pay to watch all 90 minutes of a game after that game has been finished.

    The live concert channel would probably rake the money in though!

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm a rugby fan and personally hate what has happened to the game and specifically what Sky has done.

    I love watching Super14 rugby and sky owns the rights to broadcast the game. I have no problem with that and subscribe to sky especially so I can watch. But now get this - of the 13 games a weekend they only show two. Still I have no problem with that but where I do take issue is that they don't release the rights for the other 11 games in order for me to at least be able to follow it online. No Sir - they won't even let you as a fan buy the game from a PayPerView supplier online if you have a UK registered IP address.
    So even though they aren't showing the game they wont allow you to watch it elsewhere. For that very reason I feel Sky deserve the middle finger. Never before has blatant greed been so evident in sport.

    For that reason alone it also makes it painfully difficult to follow some sport in the UK and I've lost interest in Super14 rugby and will probably be giving up my Sky subscription after this years Ashes series. And it is simply down to Sky's greed.
    These days it seems it's the only message that counts - take my custom elsewhere.

    There has been a positive aspect though - I have dusted off the boots and am now involved as a player in my local side after years as am armchair supporter of the game.

  • Comment number 11.

    They're killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    We're in the digital age now - and one fo the things that has become evident is that you don't have to pay for anythign anymore.

    And unfortunately it's not somethign that can be put back in the box.

    Even the Wall Street Journal has most articles for free on their website.

    While some may bemoan the fact that you can no longer sell news it's also true that it has never been easier to publish your thoguhts to the world online and for that very reason we will never again have to pay for information.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Football is the most beautiful game in the world whether you watch it on TV or in a stadium as long as it is live show.

  • Comment number 14.

    I used to be a football fan, when it was solely on the terrestrial channels and I'm an F1 fan so I fear the day that Bernard Ecclestone tries to copy the Premier League and takes the sport away from the terrestrial TV services we have here in the UK (BBC, ITV, C4 and Five).

    I don't watch TV that much as it is, I work nights and sleep during the day but I'm on a 3 night on 3 night off rota so I get 3 days off a week (first day off is spent asleep after being at work the night before though) so I watch a local news bulletin on ITV (Anglia) at 18:00 2 nights a week and then I go play video games on my laptop or do other bits and pieces on my laptop which do not include watching TV, other than that I only ever watch the F1 (currently on the BBC) or the BTCC on ITV4. This is because during the day the TV is aimed at women, and in the evening it's the same, soaps and "dramas", again aimed at women, there is very little for the alpha male on terrestrial TV these days.

    And I have to pay for a TV licence for the luxury of using the terrestrial TV service for as little as I do so I don't see why, as a low paid worker with very little disposable income, I should be forced to pay £400+ PA for another TV service in order to watch certain programs just so some greedy git in management can put their "product" on Sky and make a bit more money for his coke habit.

    There was a time when everyone could afford to enjoy the "entertainment" put forward by TV companies and the like, the way it's going the only entertainment the likes of myself will be left with is playing marbles in the streets, but even then I'll have to use stones and pebbles because I probably won't be able to afford marbles.

    I sincerely hope that if people do try to emulate the premiership and move to "subscription" based services such as Sky that they fail, and pay dearly for it. Football is our national game and not everyone can afford to watch it, which is wrong when you consider that once upon a time football was a working class sport for the common man.

  • Comment number 15.

    I have used Sky Sport's online streams for some Champions League games I wanted to watch, you pay a one-off fee and they stream the match to you at high quality.

    Premier league and other leagues in the world should do that, or whoever has bought the TV rights could stream them online too at a good price.

  • Comment number 16.

    Dear me, this is the most basic of business. So obvious you give what the people want for money.

    This article is only useful for the GCSE student and revisions aswell.

    All you need to do is do research into the football market, which is the hard part, and then take the results and facts and turn them into consumable products.

    If you feed the pig or goat they then usually come back for more if it's to their liking.

  • Comment number 17.

    "Sky's big investment in encryption technology has been pretty successful in limiting the numbers who can watch illicitly. In recent years, fans wanting to watch football without paying a satellite subscription have turned to the internet - but the Premier League has been vigorous in the defence of its copyright, notably in its ongoing lawsuit against YouTube."

    Surely you are joking?

    The number of people now watching live matches completely free online through sites like justintv and services like sopcast and veetle is only going to continue to grow. From anecdotal evidence, most football supporters I have spoken to are aware of, and have used these services.

    Football, and TV in general, has utterly failed to learn the lessons of Napster and will be hit even harder than the music industry has. This kind of self-congratulatory nonsense is completely missing the point.

    Highlights of matches that have already been played may well be taken down from youtube, but the technology to stream games LIVE online is already here, and is very simple to use. "Encryption" is utterly useless when someone can effectively point a decent quality camera at a good screen and stream the feed. (In any case, any tv output can be intercepted by computer after it has been decrypted, and it is child's play to then put that content online.)

    The chances of this being stopped by the heavy-handed approach of suing websites is tiny, has the sentencing of the Pirate Bay owners reduced the amount of file-sharing via bittorrent? Of course not.

    Only when the industry wakes up to the internet as the platform they should be embracing rather than resisting will there be any chance of anything but disaster.

  • Comment number 18.

    Wow...what a ridiculous article. I agree with the 1st comment....
    How in gods name can you compare TV and the Media to Football :|
    I dont know anyone who supports ITV or Channel 4...
    And there will never be anyone or anything that can prevent people watching things on the internet for free. It may work for a while but people will find ways to get around any barriers, its how the internet works, it evolves and always gets around any problems given enough time.
    The best thing for TV companies is to make partnerships with Internet Service providers and make watching TV online legally more easier and interesting, maybe start charging more in the subsription packages so that the TV and Media companies can have a share of that too. Even then i dont know if it could happen.

  • Comment number 19.

    Football is not the only entertainment that has this.

    Look at Vince Mcmahon's excellent marketing of WWE. With Sky, you get all of the mediocre wrestling bouts on Monday Night Raw/Friday Night smackdown, which leads to the "Main Events", once or twice a month, that cost £14.99 to watch (eg, Wrestlemania)

    Unlike the other Pay-per-view sport, Boxing, you are guaranteed between 3 and 4 hours of entertainment as opposed to 4 mins in the Ricky Hatton bout for the same price.

    This is why he's a multi-millionaire, where other sports owners/franchises in America are going bust at an alarming rate...

  • Comment number 20.

    Football is no longer a sport, its a business. There is a serious lack of passion in the game for people to support the game for what it is rather than the amount of money their club can spend in the transfer windows to sign the best talent in the world to guarantee them silverware. Bring in the quota's, wage capping and cut down squad numbers. If you want the beautiful game you got to get rid of the bits that everyone including me love.

  • Comment number 21.

    This article is generally well-written, except it omits "streaming" sites like Sopcast, TV Ants, JustinTV etc. These sites are becoming ever-more popular and right now, the Premier League is powerless to stop them. If Sky subscriptions continue to rise exorbitantly, this will really start to eat into their revenue stream and rightfully so. There is only so much fans will take being "squeezed."

  • Comment number 22.

    I found this article very interesting.

    The thorny question of digital future in the book trade was also discussed at length at the recent London Book Fair.

    The main problem of having everything from newspapers to live sports free on the Internet is a lack of funding. Eventually the quality of online content will suffer as the people providing it are not being paid.

    The obvious answer is advertising and marketing. But surely this is worse - to be able to read a piece of news content online or watch a live sports match you have to sit/sift through mountain of marketing material first? I know this already happens on Sky, but if the marketing is the only income stream, it will be worse.

    Will my novels, which take an average of 1-2 years to write, in the future be given free on the internet? I hope not, as I really do need to eat.


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