An open letter to our Sky overlords – Column
Sunday, 4th Dec 2016 18:41 by Clive Whittingham
Following Thursday’s poorly attended defeat to Wolves, and two months before we get to play at home on a Saturday afternoon again, LFW would like to plea for a ceasefire from the Championship’s main broadcaster.
My old mate Stuart, sadly no longer with us, used to start letters like this with ‘do you recognise me? I’m your customer.'
Every month the thick end of £100 goes out of my bank account and for that we get the whole lot – the fibre broadband, the telephone we never use and all of the television. All the kids channels, all the movies, all the documentaries and all the sport including, for an extra £17 a month, all the BT Sport channels which we never watch but pay for just on the off chance we might. LFW is a Sky household, one of those ‘triple play customers’ who are the prime real estate for the telecoms companies. The BT rights grab, the rising Premier League deal – it’s all done to get people like us signed up to contracts exactly like the one we’re on. There are half a dozen of us working on this site, and there are four all-encompassing Sky subscriptions between us.
So please, if anybody at Sky does ever read this, don’t dismiss this as the standard anti-Sky, anti-Murdoch rant by somebody who in any way boycotts your product.
Nor is it a worthy piece from the Against Modern Football movement. We don’t spend our Saturdays at Dulwich Hamlet supping pints of Goblin’s Cock and saying we enjoy the football much more than the professional stuff. We are Championship season ticket holders who consume Sky’s football content voraciously. I’m about to sit down and watch Forest v Newcastle, really looking forward to it.
The coverage, the camera angles, the analysis, the picture quality – all of it is fantastic. Sky are way ahead of the rival broadcasters in recognising that football fans don’t want to be bored to death by Chris Sutton, don’t want to be antagonised by a bonehead like Steve Claridge, don’t want to be provoked by a honking goose like Robbie Savage. We want to learn, and be educated, and understand, and gain insight. We want Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Graeme Souness, David Prutton – we don’t really want Jamie Redknapp, but we appreciate the fact he lets us clear extra football watching time past the Mrs – and you give us that.
And we’re not going to sit here and make out like the Football League would be better off without you. Firstly, because we’ve seen in the days before Sky, and in more recent times when terrestrial broadcasters have laid their hands on highlights and live rights to our division, what a pale imitation the coverage they provide is. Rushed, poorly edited highlights packages beamed out in the middle of the night, occasional live matches on dim and distant digital channels.
Secondly, because the money you pay to our clubs is vital to the survival of many of them – three Championship mainstays at the time of the ITV Digital collapse (Grimsby, Stockport, Tranmere) plunged into non-league and will never ascend back to their previous level because that money never materialised.
And thirdly because we like watching it. It’s fantastic that somebody is paying such attention, offering such coverage, to our divisions. Ian Holloway speaks highly of Gary Hughes, your head of football content, who went to his superiors and convinced them that wider, better, improved Football League coverage could be the answer to losing the Champions League rights to BT Sport. He sounds like a man after my own heart. I’ll take a League One tear up between Bury and Bolton over any meaningless Champions League group stage game – a group stage that lasts five months, is frequently played in front of half full stadiums, and produces the same dozen teams for the final knockout stages – any day of the week. I think you had a bit of a touch losing that competition just as it stagnates completely. We should meet for a pint, it sounds like we’d get on.
But, guys, we need to talk.
On November 19 QPR played a home match with Norwich City at 15.00 on a Saturday. This is the last time we will do that until Saturday January 28 when we play Wigan – a full three months, through the busiest part of the season, and even that will be moved if either team makes the FA Cup fourth round. Conceivably, it could be Saturday February 11 against Huddersfield before it happens again – 84 days between Saturday afternoon home games, longer than the summer off-season. In the meantime we have games on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday lunchtime, Sunday morning, Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning, and Wednesday night.
This may not resonate with you. What’s in a kick off time? In Spain the whole top flight is staggered across three days and it’s all on TV, it’s the modern era. You pay a lot of money for your Football League rights, money the clubs can’t do without, and for that money you expect to be able to move fixtures around, stage your little ‘Ten in Ten” gimmicks and so on, and that’s maybe fair enough. But let me give you three reasons why it should – one from your business’ point of view, one from my (your customer’s) point of view, and one wider ‘what sort of country do we want to live in?’ view.
Firstly, from Sky’s point of view, you are damaging your product by the way you’re going about this. You are football people - we can tell from your coverage, you love the sport. You’ve surely noticed how dreadful the atmosphere is at games you move to morning (and 12 noon is the fucking morning let me tell you) kick offs. Who has ever turned around at 12 noon on a Sunday and said “do you know what I could do with now? QPR v Aston Villa"? Everybody is tired, bleary eyed, hungover. The players’ routines and timetables are thrown out of whack. The atmosphere is non-existent. The games frequently take a long time to get going and peter out quite quickly. You must have noticed this. You’ve also surely noticed that moving games to Thursday nights shaves thousands off the gates. Our recent match with Wolves was a prime example – half as many away fans as Wolves usually bring, huge swathes of empty seats across the home ends. Yes the TV money is vital to the clubs, yes you pay extra match fees to cover that loss of ticket income for games you do pick as part of the deal, but do you really want to be showing second tier matches, being played in front of empty stadiums, on a Thursday night? I noted with interest the dozen or more occasions your presenters and commentators mentioned the fact that it was a sell out for the recent Leeds v Newcastle game – so you clearly do think that a big, noisy crowd adds something to your product.
It may sound impressive to be able to say you’re showing 180 games from the Football League, but if you end up achieving that by cramming poor quality, often meaningless, games into anti-social kick off times, wrecking the atmosphere in the process, is that really providing value to subscribers? Do you believe anybody catching a look at QPR v Wolves last Thursday in a pub or at a friend’s house will have thought “this looks/sounds great, I’ve got to get a Sky subscription”? I bet most of the people who do have one watched The Apprentice instead. What were the viewing figures for that game? Honestly? Would showing 60 good matches at times that don’t hamper the atmosphere not be better for you and your subscribers than showing 180 games like that?
Secondly, from our (your customer’s) point of view – you’re pissing us off. Last season, under pressure from the Football Supporters Federation, you agreed to release a rough guide to when your fixture changes would be announced. The November fixtures, you said, would be revealed by the end of August. When that date came and went, and with the cheaper tickets fast running out, we purchased six train reservations for our away match at Middlesbrough. This was then, deep into September just six weeks before the game, moved to a Friday night.
I’m still amazed that anybody at Sky, Middlesbrough, QPR or the Football League thought that was ok. This “they pay the money, they can do what they like, we can’t do anything about it” attitude is not acceptable in that circumstance and it ignores a lot of the traditions and fabric of the sport that made you invest so heavily in it in the first place. What did you buy Football League rights if it wasn't for people like us? We certainly won’t have been the only QPR fans left nursing completely useless, non-refundable advance purchase £40 train tickets that day (£240 worth of them).
Now you may not care about that, but back to point one, that game was subsequently played out in front of almost no away fans at all, because London to Middlesbrough on a Friday night in November is in no way practical. Is that good for your product? Occasionally the Sky commentators will mention “the brave few” or “the hardy few” who’ve “travelled all this way” on “a difficult night for travel” with an apparent complete lack of self-awareness that the reason Gillingham are playing at Wigan on a Friday night is because Sky told them they had to.
As we’ve already outlined, we’re your prime market for this Championship coverage, and yet you’re constantly going out of your way to antagonise us by moving fixtures close to the date of the game, moving fixtures to anti-social kick off times, and moving games over which huge distances must be travelled to get there away from Saturdays, making us take time off work, costing us money for unused train tickets. We want to watch your coverage, we want to attend games and create the atmosphere that improves your coverage, why are you being like this with us?
Thirdly, a wider point. If we could go for that pint, I know a nice little pub in Shepherd’s Bush that would be ideal for it. It’s a pub that had to give up its Sky subscription, when the cost of it was upped to £1,400 a month (£16,800 a year) a year ago. It’s taken a hit to its takings as a result, customers have gone elsewhere – some of them to pubs with hooky foreign feeds of your coverage, some reward for our landlord playing by the rules – but not £16,800 a year’s worth. It is, though, now even more reliant than ever on the trade it gets between 11.00 and 23.00 on a Saturday when QPR are at home as a result. Now you’ve taken that away from them during what should be their three busiest months of the season. A pub in an absolutely prime piece of real estate, at the end of a road where five other pubs have been closed and turned into flats. A pub full of your customers, a pub that used to be one of your customers itself. A pub where they stand four deep at the bar at 14.00 on a Saturday, but one that was absolutely dead at 18.45 on Thursday night. A pub that can’t live with Sky, and can’t live without you.
And don’t think that there won’t be other pubs, cafes, restaurants, chicken shops that suffer the same. Reliant on 18,000 people coming into the area every other Saturday, you’ve taken that away from them for three months.
QPR is one of the few clubs left with a print fanzine. A Kick Up The R’s is absolutely brilliant. More than 30 years old, full of wonderful writers, considered pieces, brilliantly edited and curated for three decades by Dave Thomas who travels to every QPR game from the north west. A vital voice when, on three separate occasions, people have spoken about merging our club with another and ending it altogether. There'd potentially be no QPR for you to mess with without these guys. It relies on Saturday home games, when the crowds are bigger, and the selling time is longer. Midweek matches, morning matches, with lower crowds, less selling time etc hits it hard. You’ve taken away all of its former and left it with only the latter for three months over Christmas.
QPR is one of the few clubs around that still makes an effort with its matchday programme. It’s a regular award winner, edited by a lifelong QPR fan, but its sales are being hit the same for the same reason. What incentive is there for the club not to just hack a publication that has a rich history back to the very basic, cheapest format it can find?
Sky, with all its riches, may not care about fanzines, or chicken shops, or pubs in Shepherds Bush – though it should, it’s exactly this sort of tradition and fabric of the game that sets English football apart, that makes it so appealing around the world. It should care more that months of fixture fuckwittery like this will put people off buying season tickets at QPR, Leeds and elsewhere. The Sky staff on duty on Thursday night may not have twigged that the Lower Loft behind the goal was entirely empty because that’s the family stand and lads and dads – Sky customers current and future – can’t do midweek games on school nights and therefore can’t do a QPR home game at all for weeks at the moment because of you.
But when the pubs are all flats, and the football fans have all got sick of paying £500 for a season ticket only to have all the games moved, and the Sky subscribers are tired of watching mediocre football played in front of half full stadiums and dead atmosphere, then what? Then who’s going to be there to listen to Ray Winstone trot out his latest odds? Then who’s going to happily swallow a seven week wait for a rude Open Reach engineer to come and connect our broadband, because we love our Sky Sports so much?
We’re not asking for QPR to never be on television. We’re not asking for games never to be moved. We’re quite reasonable really. Please give three months’ notice for moves – the cheap train tickets go on sale three months before. Please consider the distance between the two clubs if you’re moving it to a Friday night. Please forget this idea that anybody wants to watch Championship football on a Thursday – nobody does, not even your most obsessive viewers like us, your viewing figures tell you as much. Please take into consideration how long it’s been since that club has played on a Saturday before moving another of their games – and the effect the lack of Saturday games has on your customers and the businesses around football grounds. Please ask yourself whether you like watching football on a Sunday morning, whether you think it’s a good product for your channels. Ask yourself what made you invest so much in the rights you now exercise without thought or consideration in the first place.
Or, you know, don’t. But I think you know you’ve paid too much for that Premier League deal, I think you know you’ve paid too much for Thierry Henry to say nothing very much at all, I think you know the Premier League isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (I had to laugh at the outcome of your "Red Monday"), I think you know the viewing figures for it are falling (and therefore subscribers will follow) and I think you know you’re in trouble if Google or Apple get involved in that next round of rights bidding for the top flight. If I’m wrong, I wonder why your call centre throws free stuff at us whenever we ring and say we’re thinking of cancelling a bit of our subscription
If I’m right and you’ve pissed the Football League around so much that supporters have lost interest in both attending the matches and watching them on your channels, that pubs have closed, that there’s an active movement against you… Then what?
LoftforWords (Sky customers)
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