TV Times: How Sky Created a Whole New Ball Game

In 1992 football was something that few people were prepared to stand-up and actually admit they liked. It didn’t generate the endless hours of TV coverage it does today or the in-depth media scrutiny that we now take for granted. Basically, unless you went to games you had very little chance of seeing football anywhere else. That was before Sky Sports came along and revolutionised the way all of us consume the game forever.

Some would have us believe that football didn’t exist before the invention of the Premier League. Of course it did, but it was almost unrecognisable from what most of us are now used to. The game was on its knees, with matches being played in crumbling stadiums against the constant threat of hooliganism, with tragedies at Hillsborough and Bradford still fresh in the memory; while a ban on English clubs playing in Europe and a depressed economic climate was forcing our national game towards the brink.

Then there was the fact that very few games were actually broadcast live on television. The final season of the old Football League Division One, the 1991/92 campaign, had been a thriller. Manchester United, who had led the pack and topped the table for most of the season after a blistering start looked to be heading for their first title since Matt Busby lifted the famous old trophy back in 1967. United were riding on the crest of a wave after winning the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in the previous two seasons and now looked like finally landing the league championship after what seemed like a lifetime.

Under the guidance of the ever-steely disciplinarian Howard Wilkinson, Leeds United had other ideas. Not as glamorous or popular as their rivals from across the Pennines, that Leeds side still contained fantastic players like Gary Speed, Lee Chapman, Rod Wallace and, of course, Eric Cantona. So when the nerves inevitably set in and United stumbled come Easter, Leeds were in the ideal position to pounce in one of the most exciting climaxes you could wish to see – except not many people did see it.

Sky Sports' Richard Keys

Yes, we had Saint & Greavsie on a Saturday lunchtime and a handful of games were broadcast live by ITV as part of their Sunday afternoon show The Match, chaired by Elton Welsby; but compared to the blanket coverage of today the fact that ITV even showed both Manchester United and Leeds United’s games live on that penultimate Sunday seemed almost groundbreaking. But this was all to change when the new FA Premier League was launched the following season.

Those dramatic final throws of the 1991/92 season – not to mention England’s glorious failure and Gazza’s tears just a couple of years earlier at the World Cup in Italy – had proven that, despite the bleak landscape, there was still a huge appetite for the game. If done properly a whole new audience could be reached, not just at home, but around the world too, and for those running the game this was all the encouragement they needed.

So when the chairmen of the so-called ‘big five' of Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United and Tottenham decided to take action by kick-starting the notion of a breakaway top flight, deciding they would all be better off forming their own league, which would allow them to distribute the wealth amongst themselves, rather than the entire 92 professional clubs, a struggling broadcaster saw their opportunity.

Initially, then ITV Chief, Greg Dyke, met with representatives of these clubs and subsequently offered them £1m each – to put this into perspective, Arsenal’s then total turnover was £1.5m. The big five, however, were well aware of the interest that their new “product” might attract, meaning they were more than willing to sell to the highest bidder in what soon became a blind auction.

Enter satellite channel BSkyB, who back then were more of a novelty than a serious broadcaster and were losing in excess of £10million a week, due to the fact that hardly anybody was prepared to purchase their expensive satellite boxes. This was do-or-die stuff for BSkyB who saw the opportunity of being the exclusive broadcaster for the new FA Premier League as a way of becoming one of the biggest players in the market.

What’s more, the Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur just so happened to be Alan Sugar, the man whose company, Amstrad, built the satellite dishes that, if BSkyB won the contract for the new Premier League, would soon be flying off the shelves. The full extent of Sugar’s influence may be difficult to quantify, but the original Premier League television deal was finally settled at £191m, as BSkyB narrowly beat ITV in the battle to exclusively show live domestic football – by just one vote.

Eric Cantona lifts the Premier League trophy for Man Utd

It was the ultimate marriage of convenience as the deal came just at the right time for football, when clubs were wondering how they could ever afford the vast stadium improvements recommended by the Taylor Report which followed the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.

With the new broadcaster came the promise of a “Whole new ball game” as Sky pulled out all the stops to promote their newest acquisition, initially to an audience of thousands rather than millions. Out went the sober suits and in came dancing girls, fireworks, half-time shows and brash blazers in a bid to capture a new fan base. “We had to sell,” explains Richard Keys, who 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.”

More than ever before football was now at the mercy of the TV broadcasters. As well as regular, live Sunday afternoon games, Sky also introduced Monday Night Football in a bid to transform the way we all watched the game, making it a weekend-long experience. Regular magazine shows like The Boot Room, Hold the Back Page and The Footballer’s Football Show also enabled an increasingly newer audience to get closer to players than ever before – assuming they stumped up their monthly subscription that is.

But it wasn’t just the quantity of football that changed when Sky became the exclusive broadcaster of the Premier League a quarter of a century ago, the format was almost unrecognisable, too. Whereas coverage would usually start 10 minutes before kick-off in the days of terrestrial broadcasts, Sky’s Super Sunday burst onto the scene, broadcasting pretty much all day, with pre-match discussion beginning mid-morning and detailed post game analysis continuing long after the team coaches had left the stadium that night.

“When we started, the BBC and ITV were in the comfort zone,” Andy Melvin, former Executive Producer of Football for Sky Sports and the man who was responsible for bringing Andy Gray into millions of homes in the years following the new TV deal, told Four Four Two magazine. “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.”

The realisation that there was such an appetite for this in-depth tactical analysis came to Melvin almost by chance during a night out. “Andy Gray and I were drinking one night,” Melvin recalls. “He was drinking Rolling Rocks and I was drinking San Miguels, and 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 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. That’s what we’ve got to give them.’”

In the years since, Sky has often been blamed for many of the irritations that have resulted from the game’s runaway success since the early 1990s, and the broadcaster is often blamed for working class fans, who were one the lifeblood of the game, being priced out of the sport, never to return.

The scheduling of games is also an issue for many, as barely half a weekend’s programme kicks off at the traditional time of 3pm on a Saturday anymore. It is easy to point the finger at Sky for this, but it is worth remembering that the clubs do have a say when a game takes place and are often more than happy to ignore the interests of their fans in favour of TV money.

But despite the arguments over kick-off times and ticket prices the fact is that crowds have continued to rise since the launch of the Premier League. The average Premier League attendance today is considerably higher than the season of its launch.

The Championship has enjoyed its own benefits too, thanks to bigname players turning out for the likes of Newcastle and Aston Villa. Sky would no doubt argue that greater interest in the game generated by their coverage is behind this increase in interest, not just when it comes to armchair viewers, but match-going fans too.

Sky Sports' Andy Gray

The football we see today is a completely different game from that played by Robson, Hughes, Chapman and Wallace et al at the beginning of the 1990s, when Leeds snatched the title from under the noses of Manchester United, and the way we watch football couldn’t be further from those days either. In truth, as viewers, we are spoilt by what Sky puts in front of us on a weekly basis.

The flip side of this transformation, of course, is the culture of greed which is now seemingly the norm, as more-and-more clubs almost bankrupt themselves in an effort to reach the crock of gold at the end of the footballing rainbow.

Then there is the ongoing problem for the England national team, thanks to the fact that less than half of the Premier League’s players are qualified to represent the “Three Lions,”  which many feel has been brought about by the introduction of foreign stars attracted by the huge riches on the table.

Clubs are more than happy to tap into the steady stream of interest that now comes from all over the world thanks to huge international TV and marketing deals and, actually, the Premier League is a superb product that sells around the globe but has very little to do with English football. Clubs have foreign investors, teams are made-up of foreign players, more often than not, managed by foreign coaches. An English manager has not won the top prize in England since the incarnation of the Premier League (and mansion casino promo code).

In truth; the one, two or sometimes three live games we have become used to on Sunday afternoon, not to mention the new Friday evening offerings and, of course, Monday Night Football are now an integral part of any football fan’s weekend in the same way that Bovril and bobble hats once were.  Then there’s the strangely addictive Soccer Saturday, which was once described as: “a load of blokes outside a party, looking through the letterbox and telling you what you were missing inside.”

For the best part of a quarter of a century commentators and journalists have predicted that the football bubble will burst; that this can’t go on, that the TV money can’t keep going up, that the broadcasting deal is going to come to an end, that the players can’t be worth the money that is being spent on them – and have been proven wrong time-and-time-again.

Football has become a form of Hollywood that it never was in 1991, as the paying audience just can’t get enough of the action on an almost daily basis it seems; and as for the argument there is too much football on the television now, as one of the original pioneers of the Sky revolution back in 1992, Andy Gray, put it: “we do have an off button you know.”