Why the demise of the Irish broadcaster is evocative of the modern evolution of football.
While the Confederations Cup and the European Under-21 Championships are doing a good job of distracting us from wave upon wave of ridiculous transfer rumours which look destined to continue throughout the summer, it is worth noting that some actual news is still abound in the football world and shouldn’t be forgotten. I speak primarily of the demise of the Setanta Sports TV channel, who look to be on the brink of administration after failing to meet numerous payments to footballing bodies and whose allocation of broadcasting packages have reverted to the governing bodies, to be auctioned off afresh.
While never a Setanta subscriber in my days in England I nevertheless feel that it’s a shame to see them go down the pan. Not only did they provide some competition for Sky but they also ensured that ESPN were kept out of the English market, which has only been a good thing in my opinion as their coverage is awful, Americanised and excessively advert ridden. More than that though, Setanta, started by two Irish blokes in a pub, was a throwback to the ‘good old days’ of football, when it wasn’t quite so corporate. And it’s demise also suggests that to break the dominance of established success is nigh on impossible, which could be bad news for Manchester City…
As I mentioned, Setanta started out when two Irish football fans bought the rights to screen Ireland’s 1990 World Cup game against Holland after both the BBC and ITV declined to show it in England. Charging $10 entry to the Top Hat Club in Ealing to watch the game they soon broke even when over 1000 Irish fans turned up to watch the game. It’s a great story to tell, two guys who love their football went out of their way just to see one game. That sort of thing couldn’t happen today, because all football rights are snapped up by the big corporations.
And while that means that most football matches are easily viewable (albeit for often significant financial outlay), it does mean that such an event as Setanta’s birth will never be repeated. It’s telling of the sport as a whole too, no more can the fans themselves get hands on involved with the sport they love – they have to deal with middle men, who provide a good service sure enough, but are involved primarily to make money. When Michael O’Rourke and Leonard Ryan bought the rights to that Ireland game, they probably never expected to break even – they just wanted to watch the game, whatever the cost.
Years later though and Setanta are on the brink of collapse. No doubt spurred on by their initial success the company grew gradually over 19 years and has recently become a big player in the sports broadcasting industry, winning various broadcasting rights that really put them on the map: notably two Premier League packages, England away games and the Scottish Premier League. Expanding globally they also expanded into other sports, particularly golf, and established a good client base worldwide.
However, as is often the case, such success brought with it more pressure to continue their growth, and to continue to broaden and improve their service. But in a world that is becoming increasingly commercialised and when you are competing with such established broadcasting giants as Sky and the BBC, it’s always going to be a tough fight to keep expanding. And ultimately that seems to have shown for Setanta.
They payed out big money on some of their deals, probably over-committing financially in the hope that securing those deals would attract the customers needed to fund them. But in their desperation to keep the growth coming, they bought some risky rights. Deals for the FA Cup and England friendly games were a significant outlay, but when the FA Cup often only throws up the odd ‘must watch’ tie before the later rounds the consumer base for that is limited. Similarly, few people will be willing to pay out for an England friendly game, where 11 subs are made at half time and they are lining up against lesser international nations.
They also went into direct competition with Sky, establishing their own dedicated news channel to compete with Sky Sports News. However, Sky have been in the business from the start, hell they made the business and thus they are always going to be hard to compete with. And given that the Setanta service is largely pay-per-view, a news channel is never really going to be entirely viable, not when Sky Sports News is available as part of the Sky Sports package. Why subscribe to the Setanta News channel and still have to pay out for individual games?
Ultimately then, Setanta’s downfall seems to have come. It seems to me to have arrived due in part to over-ambition, they were too eager to keep their brand expanding where a more steady business model may have been more wise. However, the biggest reason for its failure in my opinion is simply that they could never hope to compete with Sky. Sky with its established dominance, its great reputation and its guaranteed coverage and programming is just in many ways, a safer bet for the paying public.
It goes to show that no matter what the newcomers like Setanta do, you simply can’t buy the sort of credibility that Sky has earned. They have been with the Premier League since the beginning, and pretty much every innovation in football broadcasting has come through them. Innovations such as ‘playercam’ and ‘fanzone’ were Sky’s inventions, and iconic programmes like Soccer AM and Jeff Stelling’s Sky Sports Saturday make them nigh-on unbeatable. Ultimately, Setanta were attempting to go toe to toe with an immovable object, and in the real world, David rarely beats Goliath.
Reading more into this than is perhaps strictly necessary, you can look at that as a reflection on football as a whole. And if you do so, it perhaps makes worrying viewing for Manchester City fans, and for the billionaires that seem intent on taking the club to the summit of English football. Because while money is no option to them, they can’t simply step up to the plate with the big four straight away. Their money, like Setanta’s, cannot buy the reputation that Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have throughout Europe.
Which means that when it comes to attracting players they will struggle, just as Setanta struggled to attract subscribers from under the nose of Sky, who are the equivalent of the Premier League’s ‘big four’. Man City have seen first hand that they will struggle to attract players of the highest calibre, notably when Kaka turned them down in January. Sure, Robinho signed for them, but he’s a one off, greedy to a fault he simply signed on the dotted line under the biggest number without even thinking about which club he was committing to.
Most players worth their salt will want success. They will want to be playing in Europe, at the highest level, consistently. And Manchester City cannot offer them that with as much conviction as the ‘big four’ can. Just as Setanta couldn’t offer their subscribers the guarantees of the big games as convincingly as Sky could. Ultimately what this shows is that in football it is reputation that talks just as strongly as money. No matter what you do and how much cash you splash, you have to earn the right to be considered a top side, or a top company.
And unfortunately for latecomers like Setanta and Manchester City, the ship seems already to have sailed. When the Premier League exploded in the early nineties, Sky were on board and Setanta weren’t. And while the money was pouring into the game it was the big three (Chelsea managed to sneak in late thanks to a certain Russian) who were receiving the fattest pay cheques and who have continued to benefit most handsomely. So for other teams like Manchester City, like Everton and like Aston Villa, it is going to be incredibly difficult to break such a monopoly.
Such firmly rooted power is nigh-on impossible to dislodge once it has bedded in, and you can bet your boots that the likes of Sky and the ‘big four’ have no intention of giving up their cosy niche at football’s summit so easily. It will take a major wobble for the dominance to be broken (though it seems Liverpool’s financial security could indeed be under threat) and until such a wobble occurs, no matter how much money City have and no matter how much talent and quality and spirit Everton and Aston Villa have, it will be an uphill battle to break the top four dominance, and like Setanta, they may fail.
So I think it’s a shame that Setanta are going down the pan. They’ve come from humble beginnings, great beginnings, true underdog beginnings and attempted to get in on the big action. It’s the equivalent of AFC Wimbledon qualifying for the Champions League, which would be great, a true testament to fan power and an indication that we do still have a say in the game we love. But ultimately they failed, and AFC Wimbledon probably won’t get near the Champions League for many, many years, and that is a sad indication of the state of things at present.
And what’s more, with Setanta’s rights up for auction and Sky not allowed to gobble up all of the TV rights, it looks very much like ESPN may soon make it into the English broadcasting market. Having to make do with their coverage for Champions League football here in New Zealand I can only lament their breaking into English football because their coverage is truly, truly terrible. Setanta, for all you stood for and for the legacy that you leave, you will I’m sure, be sadly missed.