Counting Chickens Before...

Last updated : 28 March 2002 By Tigers Co-operative
When businessmen become directors of football clubs it seems that they leave all business sense back at their offices. The events surrounding ITV Digital seem to be yet another, and potentially the most dangerous, example of this. It was certainly a case of counting chickens before they are hatched. Quite appropriate considering that this is Easter.

How many directors asked the question "What if...?" when the League entered into the agreement which seems to have finally brought the television company down. The writing has been on the wall for ITV Digital for some time.

It was always going to be difficult for a Johnny-come-lately to catch up with Sky who had already grabbed the great bulk of viewers who were willing to pay more than the licence fee to watch television. Sky already had the football product that the majority of couch potato fans wanted to watch. The rival product, the Nationwide League, could never be realistically expected to get millions parting with their pennies unless, of course, Manchester United was relegated!

ITV Digital waved gold in front of Nationwide League clubs and once again they proved that a football club is like the NHS: no matter how much money you pour into it, it's never enough. League football clubs are like buckets with large holes in the bottom. Club managements mortgaged their futures on the expectation that the money would come rolling in.

One example of football lunacy is the position of club managers. If a manager is successful he makes a lot of money in bonuses and gets a new extended contract at a higher salary. If he is a failure then he gets a big pay-off to go! We all wish we could have a job like that. The only real failures are those for whom things go wrong at the end of their contracts. The moral for any football manager is: if you're going to fail, fail early in your contract.

Most of the television money was committed to players' salaries which agents were only too willing to ratchet ever upwards. When the history of the collapse of professional football comes to be written, several chapters will be about the antics of players' agents.

If several clubs do go belly up, as Adam Pearson predicts, then many players' contracts will be as good as the one with ITV Digital. A large number of players will be looking for new jobs with a smaller number of clubs and when this happens market forces dictate that the price of their services will fall. They will be the deserved victims of their own avarice.

Unfortunately, the main victims will be the fans who may no longer have a club to support. However, it seems that Hull City has not based its finances on future television cash and we would seem to be secure in that respect.

The whole fiasco does seem to point to the importance of independent fans' organisations. As we have said in this column before, an important role of the independent fans' group is to warn its club about possible problems. It is also an important rallying point to mobilise support including financial support for its club. Boards of directors come and go but the fans go on. A football club is an essential component of its community and not a franchise of the league like yet another branch of a burger chain.

Another great worry coming out of this situation is that now there is effectively only one major bidder for live football on television. If BSkyB decides that the public's love affair with professional football is cooling down then the results would bring down the whole structure. It would have a domino effect not just in this country but across Europe with so many Premier League players coming from across the Channel.

What many fans seem to have forgotten is that the best way to enjoy a football match is to be in a stadium to see it live. The living room couch and surround sound are not the same as being there. When our new stadium is open it will be the perfect opportunity to get people back and to initiate newcomers into what is one of life's great experiences.

The main source of income for any club should be people coming through the turnstiles. He who pays the piper calls the tune. It should be the fans not some faceless business corporation.

Footnote: At the Leyton Orient game a Manchester United fan was heard asking "Why hasn't Justin Whittle been picked up by a club in a higher division?" For once anyone who was at the match would agree with John Fieldhouse's assessment that Justin was magnificent.

The Tigers Co-operative Ltd., P.O. Box 145, Brough HU15 1XP;