George Pitcher: Television does not owe Nationwide clubs a living

ITV may or may not have acted wrongly in pulling the plug on ITV Digital, but what is galling is the ridiculous self–righteousness of the Football League. By George Pitcher

I was much struck by a comment made by Football League chief executive David Burns to an old friend of mine, Mihir Bose, who writes for the Daily Telegraph.

Bose is not solely a sports writer, though he does that job well. He is also a reporter and author of considerable achievement on business and financial matters. This is a potent combination when it comes to reporting matters surrounding the collapse of ITV Digital, the pay-TV platform that was to bring us the excitement of Nationwide League football.

This is why, I imagine, Bose is able to tease out and report comments like this, from someone like Burns, about ITV chief executive Stuart Prebble: “Prebble and his colleagues… are nice people but don’t have a soul for football.”

I leave the analysis of the media issues to better-qualified colleagues – Bose included – but I must say, this comment from Burns reveals much that will prove to be wrong at the heart, if not in the soul, of the football industry.

For what Burns appears to be saying is that he would very much like to get his hands on the &£178.5m that ITV Digital still owes the Football League – the retention of which by Carlton and Granada has driven ITV Digital into administration – but that these television Johnnies don’t really understand football.

This is not unlike saying that Prebble isn’t really good enough to do business with the Football League. But his money sure as hell is. That is the language of the inverted snob: “Don’t come down here, Mr high-and-mighty Prebble, with your fancy business ways – we’re good, hard-working football folk.”

It tells us a lot more about the management of the Football League than it tells us about media companies. And none of it is very encouraging for the future prosperity of English football, outside the Premiership.

The best analogy that I can conjure up is the mindless idea, current during the dot-com boom a couple of years ago, that any online enterprise deserved investors’ money. This was a period during which normal commercial criteria went into suspension. Dot-com companies boomed simply because there was a dot-com boom.

I’m still finding it difficult to forget, the ridiculous online fashion service that spent &£80m-odd of other people’s money and then asked us to feel sorry for it. What I have managed to forget – and won’t look up, because I believe she has forfeited the usual courtesies of research – is the name of the Swedish model who ran it and whose major worry when Boo disappeared up its own hype was that she hadn’t had a holiday for two years.

Before the Football League starts to feel too sorry for itself, it had better start considering whether there is a reason why, as things stand, the likes of Carlton and Granada have all the money, while Rotherham United, Notts County and Lincoln City do not.

I sympathise with the TV executives who were saying last week that some matches on ITV Digital attracted so few viewers that it would have been cheaper to have chauffeured them to the match and put them up in local hotels.

What the Football League needs to realise is that lucrative pay-TV deals are struck because there is money to be made by the investors in such deals – not because they have “a soul for football”.

The fact is that some bone-headed club managements in the Football League have adopted a kind of post-dot-com mentality, believing that if you behave like a lucrative business then you will be one.

In this instance, they seem to have thought that if they behave like the Premiership, then they are the Premiership. The problem arises when several million viewers – the customers – disagree with this sales proposition.

This is not to argue that conglomerates such as Carlton and Granada, which sponsor such pay-TV deals, should not be held to contractual obligations that they have undertaken – obligations no doubt studied in detail by the administrators of ITV Digital, Deloitte & Touche.

But, if a business isn’t working, investors are entitled to pull the plug and cut their losses. The Football League has no more right to continued investment than the people of Rochdale have a “right” to a football club.

I suspect that brewer Carling – and Barclaycard, its successor as sponsor of the Premiership – as well as Football League sponsor Nationwide, appreciate this principle, even while the clubs that benefit from their largesse do not.

While we’re at it, it’s interesting to note that Carling and Barclaycard operate in industries in which competitive brand management is a crucial discipline. Nationwide is not so schooled in the demands of brand management, which might explain why it is not where the action is.

The reason behind BSkyB and the Premiership’s mutually-beneficial relationship is that Manchester United, and maybe half a dozen other clubs, have financial potential that does not exist at Swindon Town, at least in the short term. They are national – and international – brands that can be leveraged for a growth potential not apparent elsewhere in English football.

The answer is for league clubs to be run as local businesses, financed regionally.

Meanwhile, the growth potential for the Premiership – as with so many other industries – lies in Europe.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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