Monday, 8 August 2011

The Football League's Media Malaise

Some say the Football League doesn't get the coverage it deserves, me for one. Yet, as an organisation, it is partly culpable for this malaise both within the written and visual media. Nothing highlighted this more than the opening weekend of the football league season.

With The Football League Show usually cast off into the early hours of Sunday morning, post Match of the Day, expectations were understandably different this weekend. No Premier League, so no Shearer and Lawrenson to blight my screen and an earlier start for coverage of the first day of the English league programme. Wrong! Instead the BBC showed a level of contempt that enraged many by scheduling a repeat of Con Air at 10:15, relegating Manish and co to the cusp of midnight.

Throw in the fact that the regional football league programming on the BBC doesn't start until the new year, 5 months after the season starts, and the BBC (and ITV before them) have yet to settle on a satisfactory format. It is a real dog's dinner of coverage.

The BBC will point to the fact that the Football League Show is repeated on the red button, until noon the following day. That the goals are on the BBC website from the Monday. That people can record it and watch it later.

All well and good, but there is still a generation of viewers who aren't so technologically savvy, that don't own computers and think that the red button is for calling the warden or home help. My Nan is 92 years old, she loves her football and she took me to my early United games. How is she supposed to catch the 30 seconds of Blades highlights each week?

How about a Sunday lunchtime/afternoon repeat on BBC2? In fact if you are pushed for time, just cut out Claridge and Rosenior's analysis. The same used to be done to the Sunday repeat of Match of the Day. The programme will lose little as a result.

So how are the Football League culpable for the lack of care in BBC scheduling? Well they negotiated this deal. Surely conditions of the contract should state that their clubs and sponsors' product is displayed at a prominent time to maximise interest and viewers? Or maybe it is just about maximising the cash and bugger the end product?

I see little point in the BBC having ten live football league games if they cannot get their bread and butter coverage right. Now in the final year of their contracted coverage, is their any real motivation to change their product? Well, apart from losing Lizzie and her emails and texts from The Football League Show, seemingly not.

With the terrestrial highlights package yet to be agreed from next season and a much reduced price to be paid. Now is a chance for the Football League to try and get improved quality of coverage. It should be a right, not a request. 

Then there is the print media. This weekend, Henry Winter - respected journalist at The Daily Telegraph - highlighted issues facing him and colleagues in reporting on the opening weekend of football league action. In summary a large number of news and photo journalists from mainstream papers and the Press Association were not allowed access to the press facilities at football league grounds. This was due to a dispute with the papers about live updates from the grounds during matches, both on the papers’ websites and on social media, particularly twitter. More details are here.

Top online writer Stuart Fuller of immediately responded to Winter's tweet, saying that there are many writers who have had to cope without the luxuries of a press box for years and still turn out excellent prose. For me, Stuart is one of many such people.

Winter paid to get in at the City Ground, as did Oliver Holt of the Mirror at The Valley. Many others didn’t bother. After all these passionate auteurs of the beautiful game, wouldn’t pay to watch and report on a match out of their own pocket.

Today's coverage in The Daily Telegraph amounted to less than two pages, with two main match reports and about a tenth of the content taken up with the disclaimer stating why they couldn't offer a full service. But, in reality, would it have been that much different without the dispute?  Would the four pages dedicated to the Community Shield have been reduced? Would Alan Hansen’s column have been cut? Would the three pages of rugby coverage have been cut? Would the size of the ads have been cut and precious advertising revenue lost?

Yes the football league are not helping themselves, yet I find it hard to accept certain journalists and certain papers taking the moral high ground. For years the broadsheets have paid lip service to football outside of the Premier League. You may get one/two match reports from the Championship in your Sunday Telegraph/Sunday Times and even in The Times' Monday "The Game" supplement you get a one line summary and quote on each game.

They may have some of the better and more eloquent writers on the beautiful game, but sometimes all you want is an alternative and neutral view on the beautiful game that you watched, not 500 words on why Mike Ashley is a pillock, or Carlos Tevez should honour his contract at Manchester City.

The reports are what create debate and interest. This is a point made by Winter in this article following the Forest v Barnsley match he attended. Yet as valid as his point is, any interest fanned by the journos this week would simply be passing interest on their part, in the absence of their preferred product. Back to the football that Winter openly craved on twitter a few weeks back for him next week.

Although it is easy to criticise the tabloids for many things, the volume and range of coverage is/was always there. Every league match had a report of varying size in today’s Sun (despite the ban). The News of The World was purchased every Sunday, prior to its demise, in the knowledge I would see a Blades match report - something that my preferred reading matter couldn’t offer.

I suspect that for journalists like Winter it is easier to be damning on the football league and their stance. After all, does it really matter if you fall out with Charlton Athletic or Nottingham Forest? What is interesting is that at present the Premier League is facing a similar problem next weekend, unless a resolution is found. You cannot help feeling that it will be sorted by then. If it isn't, will Winter and co be as damning in their criticism of the Premier League clubs. Will they risk a Bates-esque ban for speaking out of turn about those whose relationships they so covet. I really hope it is put to the test.

In the meantime, there are plenty of well-written match reports around the internet, if you look hard enough. @lesrosbifs has been highlighting some on his twitter feed today. Written by people who have to pay to get in, who pay for their pies, their programme and their drinks. Well written articles, from entertaining angles. Maybe the print media are shooting themselves in the foot in this dispute as successfully as the Football League?


  1. Excellent piece. May I also add that there were many lower league reports this week from the "Premier League Journalists" which were absolutely shoddy. If it wasn't an air of "we're better than covering this football", it was journalists complaining at how they've had to pay for a ticket.

    I'll stick with bloggers. Surprisingly they seem to give a less-biased view of the lower-league game.

  2. One paper that you'll always be able to see a comprehensive Sheffield United match report is the Football League Paper. Its reporters are not the big-name Premier League guys, but fresher faces, clambering up the journalism ladder. This does not mean their quality lacks in any way. Far from it.

  3. In some ways, this weekend's events have conspired to elevate the blogsophere to a higher position of regard in relation to traditional journalists and as one of them, I shall not complain. That said, it would be worrying if nobody at all were able to make a living out of football writing - time for Wapping to up its game.

  4. Very well said... however, despite this I still believe the Football League is getting bigger and better. The coverage will hopefully come with it... after all there are some brilliant online writers dedicated to the 72 Football League clubs.