Back To The Future: How Sky Changed Football Forever

In February 2007, FourFourTwo marked its 150th issue with a number of features on 'The Men Who Changed Football'. But as Jonathan Wilson notes, it's not all about the Wengers, Cantonas and Bosmans – thanks to Sky and the Premier League, perhaps the most seismic shift in football's history came off the pitch...

Way back in 1994, when FourFourTwo came mewling and puking into the world, football had been a whole new ball game for only two seasons. People were just getting used to calling the top division “the Premiership”, Manchester United were coming to terms with winning back-to-back league titles after 26 years of dearth, and the Sky revolution was in its infancy. Going to the pub to watch a game still seemed oddly eccentric, big screens were virtually unheard of, and the prudent were still waiting to see how things went before splashing out on a dish. Yet even amid the uncertainty, it was obvious that the scale of Sky’s project was extraordinary.

In that 1994-95 season, Sky screened 60 live Premier League games out of a total of 143 live matches in all competitions. There were Sunday games and, to the consternation of conservatives the country over, there were Monday night games with fireworks and cheerleaders. “We had to sell,” explains Richard Keys, who has anchored over 1,000 games for Sky. “We had to get in people’s faces, we had to make it exciting. We weren’t lying back and inviting people to join in 
if they wanted to; we were selling.”

And boy, did they sell. It was brash, it was noisy and it was colourful – and that was just Keys’ wardrobe. The growth of European football rather curtailed the Monday experience, but Sundays now seem empty without two live Premier League games (not to mention two Spanish matches in the evening). Then there are the lunchtime and tea-time pay-per-view offerings on a Saturday. Last season, Sky showed 438 games in all competitions; this season they expect the figure to be nearer 450.

Even Andy Gray admits that we may be reaching a point where there is too much football on television – although, as he points out, we do have an ‘off’ button – but the deeper concern within football is the reliance on Sky. Despite the arrival of Setanta to break their exclusivity [That went well – Hindsight Editor], Sky paid £1.2 billion for the Premier League rights for 2007-10. Nobody has forgotten the impact of the collapse of ITV Digital on Football League clubs, and the perception now is that there is a need to keep Sky sweet.

The truth, though, is that certainly in the early days, Sky needed football as much as football needed it. The growth of both in the ’90s was the tale of a happy symbiosis. “Sky came at the right time for football, just at the time of the Taylor Report when clubs must have been wondering how they could ever afford the improvements,” says Andy Melvin, now the Deputy Managing Director (Production) of Sky Sports but from 1991-99 its Executive Producer of Football, responsible for all live coverage.

It should not be forgotten that in 1992, BSkyB was losing £10m a week. In 1993, having secured Premier League rights, they recorded a £62m profit. As BSkyB’s former Director of Sport David Hill once said, “Football is first, second and third” in satellite television’s appeal. The most recent figures show that 8.2m Britons subscribe to Sky for £3.2bn; most 
of those have said that Premier League football is the main reason for their subscription.

It’s not just the quantity of football on television that has changed since the Sky revolution. When Sky won the rights, there were those who saw barbarians at the gates, but whatever other criticisms may be cast at them, the quality of their coverage has transformed the way we watch football. “When we started, the BBC and ITV were in the comfort zone,” Melvin says.

Melvin had offered Andy Gray the chance to work as a presenter at Scottish Television, only for the forward to sign for Rangers and alienate half his audience. Convinced of Gray’s media skills, though, he had no hesitation getting him involved at Sky.

“My first instruction to Andy was, ‘Don’t tell me what I can see; tell me what I can’t see,’” Melvin explains. “He pounced on that immediately and knew what I meant. When the first replay comes in, the commentator had better be finished what he’s saying, because Gray’s then [claps his hands] smack! We used that ability to do something that had never been done before. There were so few live games, and those that were on TV began five minutes before kick-off and went off air five minutes after the final whistle. There was no substance, but people took it because they knew no better.”

Time, clearly, was an issue – and the one thing a specialist sports channel has is time – but even now, when other broadcasters are devoting increasingly large slots to football, their analysis too often exists in the category Gray mocks as the “great cross, great header, great goal” school of punditry. At least one terrestrial channel has warned its presenters not to go too deep for fear of turning off a non-specialist audience, 
a notion Keys finds astonishing.

“Why do you think that a wider audience doesn’t want to know?” he asks, incredulous. “If you can can educate a greater audience, then you’re doing your job. Just keeping it superficial isn’t the right way at all. Do we present news bulletins in a superficial manner because lots of people might not watch? No, we present them in a way that is respectful to the public.”

The increasing depth of specialist knowledge is a feature of the proliferation of television channels. “The more channels there are, the more people can pick and choose the things that interest them,” confirms Dr Jon Adams of the London School of Economics, who specialises in the study of the transfer and popularisation of knowledge. “That means that an individual may know about fewer things, but probably knows more about them. From the broadcaster’s point of view, the lowest common denominator isn’t so low now.” Flicking onto ESPN’s Dead Good Sport channel offers a pertinent illustration: much of what passed for commentary before 1990 now sounds patronising, or trite.

Yet the realisation that there was a public appetite for tactical analysis came to Melvin and Gray almost accidentally. “Andy and 
I were drinking one night,” Melvin recalls. “He was drinking Rolling Rocks and I was drinking San Miguels, and this place being what it was, the bottles were lying on the table. We were talking football, and I was asking questions and he was explaining the 4-4-2 system, the sweeper system, and so on. The brown bottles were defenders and the green ones were attackers and we were aware – because he’s loud at the best of times, and especially when he’s had a drink – that people were watching and listening. The next day I said to him, ‘Do you realise what we did last night?’ and he said, ‘Yep. Thatt’s what we’ve got to give them.’”

Sky’s innovations have now been copied the world over, and not just in terms of Gray’s tactical analysis. Soccer Saturday has been a huge, if unlikely, success. “It’s radio with pictures,” said Keys. “It’s a watch. It’s addictive. It’s the ultimate form of flattery that everybody’s copying it.” Football First has added another string. “If you’re a Charlton fan you used to be grateful for two minutes on Match of the Day and ‘Thank you very much, BBC,’” says Melvin. “Now you can switch on Football First and get your 50-minute edited highlights.”

Their problem is that Sky has become too successful; that it is so associated with the game’s ’90s boom that it is blamed for many of the difficulties or irritations that have resulted from it. It is a little over two years since The Observer ran its ‘The Game That Ate Itself’ campaign, which claimed that the fan was being replaced by the consumer and that supporters were being ripped off. At the heart of that process was television.

The scheduling of games is a persistent gripe. It is rare now that more than half a weekend’s programme kicks off at the traditional time of 3pm on a Saturday. It is easy to blame Sky for that, but it is equally true that they can only offer to screen the game; the clubs have the final decision.

Two examples spring to mind. Last season [2005-06], Manchester City and Everton were due to meet in a tea-time game, only for Everton to go out of the Champions League, leaving them with a UEFA Cup tie to play on the Thursday evening. They refused to play two games in two days, but with both clubs unwilling to forgo the pay-per-view money, the match was re-arranged for 11.15 on the Sunday morning.

This season, Newcastle preferred to play Sheffield United less than 48 hours after their UEFA Cup victory in Palermo than miss out on the television revenue. They lost 1-0, sparking fans’ protests against the board. If clubs are chasing money rather than results, clearly there is something 
very wrong, particularly in a case where  
a manager’s job is under threat, but is that Sky’s fault for making the offer? Or the club’s fault for snatching at it?

“In all the time I’ve been here, I can categorically tell you we’ve never asked for a kick-off time to be changed,” says Keys. “But if you want everybody kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday, you’re not going to see the likes of Klinsmann, Gullit, Cantona – the best players in the world – coming here.”

That is perhaps a touch disingenuous – Sky must have matches played at times when people will watch them (they are still prevented from broadcasting live games at 3pm on a Saturday), and would not pay the vast sums they pay if they were not – but it does hint at the more general truth that a financially successful league does not happen without compromise.

The complaint about kick-off times is partly nostalgic (although the regular 3pm kick-off only became possible throughout the season with the advent of floodlights in the early ’60s), and partly to do with the problems for away fans of getting to games. This is where scheduling becomes a balancing act: generally speaking, the greater the number of away fans, the better the atmosphere; and the better the atmosphere, the better the game – or at least the better the perception of the game, which is effectively the same thing.

El-Hadji Diouf, among others, has spoken of the importance of having a stage on which to perform, comparing himself to an actor needing a vast and expectant audience to produce his best. In Egypt at the African Nations Cup last year, organisers were so concerned by the possible debilitating effect of empty stands that they bussed in army recruits to fill the spaces.

There is a sense in which Sky – or any television – needs away fans because without them the product is diminished. “When you go to Old Trafford for a cup tie, it’s a totally different atmosphere, and in an ideal world you’d love for them to be able to cater for that level of away support on a weekly basis, but those guys aren’t going to turn up on a weekly basis,” says Keys. “You’ve got to be realistic in that respect. It wasn’t happening; grounds weren’t full.”

And whatever complaints there may be about the changes in the game since the advent of the Premier League, it can’t be denied that attendances are up, dramatically. Last season may have seen a drop of 0.06%, but the average Premier League attendance was still 33,873, higher than the 24,271 of 1994-95, FourFourTwo’s first season. That figure may look low now, but ’94-95 was the ninth successive season that attendances had gone up. What is also interesting about those figures is that although the Premier League, all-seater stadia and Sky accelerated the process, the growth in the popularity of football had actually begun far earlier.

Of course, just because people are going to games does not mean that the atmosphere is good, and anecdotal evidence would suggest that it has got worse over the past decade. Yet if Sky can be blamed at all for the dwindling atmosphere in our grounds, it is only in as much as their money has hastened the change in the game’s culture rather than provoking it.

Sky’s money created the Premier League in its present form, but the gentrification of the game had begun before that. Most clubs had a fanzine by 1990, and Fever Pitch emerged from that culture. Then there were Gazza’s tears and the Taylor Report. Sky and the potential of satellite television was certainly not the only factor in the football boom, but it was perhaps the crucial one. Take out any other feature and the boom would probably still have happened; take out Sky and its money, and it could not have. That money, along with Champions League revenues, has led to the self-perpetuating elite, but it’s not Sky who distributes the television money – it’s the Premier League.

That said, Sky’s impact is not simply to do with football’s direct income from rights; it is the indirect income from advertising, sponsorship and exposure. Without the constant promotion of the Premier League, would so many fans – particularly those fans from wealthier sections of society rather than those from which football traditionally drew its support – go to games? Without them, would ticket prices be so high? Lord Justice Taylor saw a “reasonable” price for a ticket in 1990 as £6, which even taking inflation into account equates to around £12 today. Would shirt sales be so important? That commercialisation, that policy, to quote The Observer’s sports editor Brian Oliver, of “putting the football consumer ahead of the football fan” may grate, but it’s hard to see how Sky can be blamed. Surely we don’t want them to give football less money?

If they did, there would be fewer top players in our league, the standard would be lower and our clubs would be disadvantaged in Europe. Progress always comes with compromise, and, as Keys says, would we really swap what we have now for “a £2.50 ticket and a cold pie”?

From the February 2007 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

The frontman: RICHARD KEYSA fixture on the TV-am couch in the ’80s, Keys joined Sky in 1992, becoming the face of Super Sunday. With HDTV in mind, he recently had electrolysis on his hands.

Was the fact that you came from TV-am a problem in terms of credibility? I’m not sure everyone was that keen on me getting involved at first, although I’d been a sports reporter before TV-am. 
I was probably more sofa than sport at that stage, but sport was where my heart lay.

Is it important to have a journalist as a frontman? It’s critical. Young reporters should have a belief that that’s where they can go. That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s a place for ex-sportsmen. David Gower does a superb job on our cricket, so it is possible.

How critical has your relationship with Andy Gray been? He’s improved my understanding of the game. He’s a genius. It’s really sloppy and easy to say, ‘Great cross, great header, great goal.’ Andy tells me something different. How did the cross get in? Why wasn’t the fella marked at the back post? Could the keeper have done better? It’s not critical; it’s observational, instructional.

What have been your highlights? The first title success Man United had, we had Denis Law and Bestie, and we watched them celebrate for an hour. Believe it or not, it was fantastic television.

Best guests? Graeme Souness is a stunning contributor. And Cloughie once told David Livingstone off. “Can I ask you a difficult question?” says David. “Young man, you couldn’t ask me a difficult question if you tried.”

Any nightmare guests? A former national team manager who joined us on a Champions League night and wasn’t very warm. When the game finished, I popped into the toilet and when I came out he was gone. He was typically efficient. He won record caps for his country. [Gray: “It was Lothar Matthaus”].

The analyst: ANDY GRAYA celebrated striker with Wolves, Villa and Everton, Gray joined Sky at the advent of the Premier League and has become English football’s most respected pundit.

What’s been Sky’s best innovation? It sounds ridiculous because it’s so simple, but you’d never see football today without a score and a clock in the corner.

Any complaints about your analysis? I remember Don Howe saying, “Andy’s not telling me anything I don’t know”. I wasn’t trying to. I was trying to tell the fans what they didn’t know. Football is a very simple game that gets complicated by coaches. My job is to simplify it. In the early days 
I spotted a little run Teddy Sheringham did for Spurs. So we highlighted it. Teddy comes up to me the next week and says, “Thanks very much, Andy. I’d been doing that for 10 years and nobody spotted it – now I’ll never get away with it again.”

Ever considered coaching yourself? Yes, and there have been a couple of occasions in the past 16 years when 
I might have jumped ship. I guess if I’m sat in my rocking chair at 75 I’ll wonder whether I should have done it. As a player I was very thoughtful, and not just about my own game. In my day you either became a coach, ran a pub or sold insurance, and of those three, coaching would have been the most appealing.

Highlights in your time at Sky? The first live Premiership game, Forest vs Liverpool, was a massive day. The last-day finish when West Ham played Man United and Blackburn played Liverpool, too. And we all talk about Liverpool-Newcastle, 4-3. Liverpool scored in the first and last minute and we had five goals and such drama in between. It encompassed everything you would want in a Premiership match.

Will the big four still be the same four in 2019 when FFT is 300 issues old?If Abramovich jumps ship, no. Chelsea will shed players and finish sixth. United, Liverpool and Arsenal will still be there, because they’re based on more solid foundations.

The pioneer: GABBY LOGANDaughter of former Welsh midfielder Terry Yorath, Logan joined Sky in 1996, becoming the first mainstream female football presenter, before moving to ITV [and BBC since].

When did you decide you wanted to be a sports broadcaster?I was always glued to sport on TV but there were hardly any women doing those jobs. I didn’t want to be Des [Lynam] any more than I wanted to be Jeremy Paxman. I did work experience on newspapers and in newsrooms and I worked for local radio during my law degree, but although I did some sports reporting, I started at Newcastle’s Metro FM as a newsreader.

Did having a well-known dad help? He’s no networker, so I never asked him for any help, but I was used to seeing him with journalists and on TV and camera crews coming round, so it didn’t seem a bizarre thing. Then, when I was 15, I appeared on Blue Peter and thought live TV was the greatest thing. When I joined Sky, ex-players used to say hello because they knew my dad, but by then I was comfortable in that environment.

How did the move to Sky come about? Someone on Metro Sport asked if I fancied doing touchline interviews at St James’ Park. They previously had this 65-year-old guy trying to stop players outside the dressing room, and thought they might have more luck with a 22-year-old blonde. I was a bit naive, but you have to get your break somewhere. Richard Keys, who was covering a game for Sky, spotted me and a month later I was living in London.

Did you encounter any sexism? I’m sure I did, but I was so focused that I didn’t really notice. I wasn’t that conscious of my gender because I had a female director, a female producer and a lot of women in the office, whereas at ITV I felt more like I was in the minority.

Do you see yourself as a role model? Well, I do get female students asking what they should do next because they want to get into what I do. That makes you realise that girls are thinking, “I could do that.”

The legend: GARY LINEKERA legendary England striker, Gary Lineker became ‘the new Des’ in 1999, having worked as a pundit and presenter for the BBC since retiring from playing in 1994.

How did the change from pundit to anchorman on Match of the Day come about? I was saying the same things every week, so I started presenting on Five Live. Things fell nicely for me: Bob Wilson left Football Focus, Steve Ryder sat in while I learnt the ropes, then I popped into the chair. Des left for ITV and I got MotD! At first I was like a rabbit in the headlights. You have to be less opinionated as a presenter. But if I feel strongly about something I’ll say so, as I’ve done with England at times.

How much of an impact did Sky’s coverage have on the BBC? Massive. It was refreshing then, but I don’t think they’ve moved on massively over the years – whereas I think we’re now right up there in terms of cutting-edge technology. We also have the advantage of no adverts.

Do you regret missing out on the Sky money as a player or are you happy to avoid the hype? I lived through the hype of two World Cups, but it’s accelerated over the years. It isn’t going to slow down either, even though we keep saying it will. Yeah, it would be nice to have earned what they do now, but I do OK.

How has the football media changed? When I was playing a TV crew at training was rare. Nowadays you’ve got papers, websites, radio and magazines. It was like that at Barcelona every day. I remember thinking, “God, this is so different.” Not now.

What are the biggest changes from a broadcasting perspective? The volume of recorded games. When they put together a montage of my career, they play the same ones every time. Nowadays every goal scored is recorded.

When the Prem moved to ITV did you worry that’d be the end for the Beeb? Yes, but we fought back. The BBC have backed football, too. Our audiences during the [2006] World Cup were unbelievable.

Gray and Keys portrait: Steve Orino. From the February 2007 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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