Praise Be To Our Premier League Overlords…

A couple of pieces of news today. Firstly, after rushing to get my ESPN viewing card (well, BT are posting it to me…) we today found out their deal with the Conference has fallen through. Oh well. I have to say I always thought Setanta had put together their live sport portfolio in a scatter gun manner. Someone at the Conference saw them coming when they signed them up for a five year stint visiting Ebbsfleet, Grays and other illustrious venues, for a fee stretching into the millions.

Yet faced with a group with experience operating in perhaps the toughest rights market on the planet, in other words US sports, and the backing of Disney themselves, the Conference seem to have made a mistake by trying to play hardball with them. Also, you have to bear in mind that no matter how good a product the Conference thought they had, there was competition in the form of better quality football on the continent and beyond.

So rather than taking whatever was put on the table and being grateful, the Conference have left the table… or perhaps found the chair pulled from under them? I think the mysticism of the Conference had vanished somewhat in the last decade or so due to the increase in ex-League clubs that make up its number. Over the last ten years the Conference has had much more exposure in terms of live games than the division above it. Lets face it, watching Oxford v Luton play in front of 10,000 doesn’t actually scream ‘Non-League’ at your average punter. An intriguing fixture it may have been, but the Conference really lost its magical feel when Sky started showing games.

In the previous decade, Woking played Stevenage, two teams even football anoraks didn’t know much about. It was a top of the table game, and 4000 were in attendance. This seemed like a ridiculous crowd under the circumstances in a division where the average was barely into four figures. Up and down the country fans started to pay attention to this strange division where unheard of clubs battled for a guaranteed place in the Football League (stadium quality excepted…). It was new, it was unknown, and it was exciting.

Fast forward to a decade where you can literally watch a game every day of the week, and maybe watch six or seven on even the quietest weekends thanks to the games global nature, the Conference isn’t looking too attractive. Show a few League rejects hoof the ball back and forth for an hour and a half? Or, for a fraction of the price, show a Bundesliga game or one from Ligue 1, Serie A, even Holland or Portugal? In terms of what the average punter will chose to watch, it’s not even a choice. As for football geeks (and I include myself in that category), they have long left the Conference behind for the minor European Leagues, South America, or even MLS.

The Conference will have great difficulty finding anyone to show even a highlights package thanks to the costs involved of sending an outside broadcast unit down… unless of course thats a price the Conference are willing to foot themselves, Early signs suggest the league may go it alone, with talks of games being streamed online, and perhaps that will be a face-saving exercise more than anything.

A bad day turned surreal later in the afternoon when The Premier League (the actual real one, not the Scottish/rugby namesakes…) decided they would delve into their deep pockets and fish out some spare change (£1 million of it) and throw it in the direction of their poorer relations further down the English League system. I like to think it happened that way, someone like Phil Gartside turning up at Conference HQ with a big sack of used fivers, emptying it outside and watching the Conference officials scamper round chasing them in the wind, picking them out of bushes and puddles.

It’s not that I think Conference clubs don’t need the money. In fact for a few it will just be a drop in the ocean, barely enough to pay the wage bill for another month. Some clubs will find it extremely useful of course. I’m just wondering where their motives lie. The Premier League is a power hungry organisation, who have already made moves to take over the organization of the England National Team, and crucially, The FA Cup from the FA.

Of course it’s unthinkable that The FA would just give these up without a fight, as that would leave The Premier League as the de facto governing body with the FA left with no money to give to all other areas of the game. I’m wondering whether payments such as these are designed to soften up the lower levels. The Premier League have fought the Football League in the past over how much of its television money it should pass on, so this move comes as a surprising shift in policy.

The Premier League has got involved in charity and benevolent activities before, but this is a whole new direction for them. But it shouldn’t be seen as a guarantee that this behaviour will continue in future. Basically, what do they want from us? Do they want our TV rights? They can have them…

Seriously though, for all the vague suggestions of conspiracy above, I can think of no other reason why the PL (NOTE: NO ‘E’ THIS TIME!) would give this money except for a few lines of publicity, and a little goodwill, from what I presume must be a pot of spare money they use for good causes. Of course, the money is mostly going to end up in the back pockets of what I like to call ‘career footballers’, but at least the wage bills are in the thousands rather than the millions (mostly…).

Yet for anyone thinking this will be the start of a new dawn where money is channelled to the grass roots, forget it. If, when the first Premier League started, the clubs would have sat down and said ‘This is big money, we need to put some of it back in the game’, we would have a vastly different national game right now. No youth team in the country would have had to close. The incentive of new kit or funding could have been given to ensure sides at all levels behaved themselves on the pitch. There would be no need for ‘Respect’ campaigns, as kids would have learned that at a very early age.

The biggest irony of all, one that I failed to appreciate during my playing days, was that for the fifteen years I played I had all along been helping this League to dominate world football by paying my subscription fees. Football was never richer than when I played the game. Yet what did I see of it? What was my return? I have a few horror stories of trips to grounds where not only was the playing surface less than perfect, but the facilities were worse than even countries with the worst human rights record wouldn’t dream of holding their prisoners in. Perhaps if the Premier League really wants to make a difference, they could make sure that anyone who plays the game in a Sunday has to put up with cold showers ever again…

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