Part Eight: “A Whole New Ball Game”

By Steve Williams

First published October 2007

Until the 1990s, football on television was completely dominated by the BBC and ITV. Previous attempts by other companies to become involved in the national game were brief and undistinguished. Most notably, Telejector’s efforts to broadcast live Football League matches to the nation’s pubs in the early ’80s had been abandoned due to an inability to work out a viable business plan.

A few years later, British Aerospace were bequeathed some satellite television frequencies by the government, and used one of them to start a channel called Sportscast aimed exclusively at pubs, showing boxing, lower-division rugby league, non-league football and other such inexpensive fare. In addition, a League Cup tie between Manchester United and Oldham was sub-licensed from the Football League and ITV and broadcast live as an “experiment”, but the whole exercise was quickly abandoned due to lack of interest.

Viewers of some of the UK’s embryonic cable services could also sometimes enjoy live sport, most notably when the Screensport channel – owned by WH Smith – sponsored and televised the Super Cup, a competition in 1985/86 devised to fill evenings left blank by the post-Heysel ban on English teams in Europe. However, one season of weakened teams playing in front of tiny crowds for meagre reward was considered more than enough. The fact was that, since the terrestrial channels had all worthwhile football safely under lock and key, nobody else could compete.

That was until the arrival of British Satellite Broadcasting. Backed by the likes of Pearson and Granada, and officially licensed by the Government, BSB meant business and had the money to, for the first time, make an impact among the general public rather than simply a few cabled-up households in Swindon. Live and exclusive sport was clearly going to be one of the major draws to get people rushing out and buying squarials, so BSB made an audacious bid to gain sole rights to the Football League in 1988. They lost this battle to ITV, but did manage to grab shared rights to the FA Cup and live England matches with the BBC, as well as a pot pourri of other football from Scotland, Italy and around the world.

This football would be shown on BSB’s own sports channel – unimaginatively named The Sports Channel – whose programming was in the hands of Andy Melvin, previously Head of Sport at Scottish Television. Melvin was charged with putting together a team from scratch to present their football coverage, and was assisted in this task by Bryan Cowgill. Cowgill had previously been a highly influential Head of Sport at the BBC, credited with bringing the action replay to television, before becoming Controller of BBC1 and Director of Programmes of Thames. Now he was installed at BSB as a consultant as the broadcaster attempted to mix his sporting experience with some radical new ideas.

Melvin’s first job was to find a former footballer who could bring credibility to the new operation and become BSB’s face of football. He went for former Everton, Aston Villa and Scotland player Andy Gray. Gray had long been considered one of the most articulate and opinionated footballers, having started his punditry career on ITV’s coverage of the 1978 World Cup at the age of 23. A familiar face on television, Gray had previously been approached by Melvin when he was at Scottish TV with a view to becoming the station’s lead football anchor when he came to the end of his playing career, only for Gray to sign for Rangers and – in a nation dominated by the Old Firm – alienate half the Scottish audience. Now assistant manager of Aston Villa, Gray joined BSB as resident pundit, co-commentator and all-round expert.

Next came the main anchor. Richard Keys had begun his career in football, working on local papers and local radio before joining TV-am as a sports reporter. Later he had been promoted to the sofa as a main presenter alongside Anne Diamond, but after five years was itching to get back to his first love of sport. With the experience of fronting hundreds of hours of live television, Keys jumped at the chance of joining the new venture, saying, “I was laughed at when I joined as much as I was laughed at when I joined TV-am. But TV-am worked, and I’m confident that satellite TV will work.”

The final appointment was that of BSB’s main commentator. Andy Melvin had decided that one way in which they were going to break the mould of TV sports coverage was in the commentary box. Previously, the main commentator – whether it was John Motson or Barry Davies – would be heard for around 90% of the time, with their expert summariser only speaking when they were asked every few minutes. BSB wanted to go down the same route as in American Football where the two commentators would enjoy a much more equal role, with the former footballer frequently chipping in with analysis and colour, meaning it would come across as much more of a conversation.

Hence, Melvin asked Andy Gray for his opinion on the choice of commentator, considering it important the pair got on together. Gray harked back a few years to the time he’d covered the Sherpa Van Trophy Final for ITV alongside Martin Tyler, and he’d been impressed with Tyler’s knowledge of the sport, use of words and good voice, so recommended him to Melvin. In fact, Melvin had already had the same idea. Martin Tyler had been at ITV for 15 years and was now the network’s number two, but he’d realised that, with Brian Moore still very much the main man, he would be unlikely to leapfrog him and get the really big matches for some time. So he decided to gamble and take on the opportunity of being the number one for BSB.

With the main team in place, the channel hired a number of other broadcasters, including Scottish TV’s Jock Brown, who would commentate on Scottish football, BBC Radio’s John Inverdale, who fronted Italian football, and a team of Anna Walker, Garry Richardson and Jeff Stelling who would anchor The Sports Channel’s regular news bulletins. After a protracted delay while technical problems were ironed out, the channel finally opened in March 1990 with live coverage of England vs Brazil at Wembley.

Although BSB had some live sport, however, with the channel being on air seven days a week, they had plenty of airtime to fill. In fact it was the threadbare nature of BSB’s early schedules that saw Gray commit himself to TV full time. Gray had previously been combining his media work with his day job at Aston Villa, but Chairman Doug Ellis began to complain that he’d seen Gray on television every night of the week and that this must surely be distracting him from his coaching role. In fact, as BSB had so little programming, Ellis had been watching the same shows being repeated over and over again. However Ellis failed to grasp this concept, and pressurised Gray to choose between TV and the club – so Gray decided to take the plunge and leave Villa Park.

With plenty of time to devote to analysis, and lots of professionalism both in front of and behind the camera, BSB’s football coverage turned out to be very impressive. Yet very few people were able to see this, as the squarials continued gathering dust in electrical shops, while the public resisted signing up to BSB, confused by the rival service offered by Sky and not wishing to be lumbered with a Betamax-esque system that would soon become obsolete. By the end of 1990 it was reported BSB was losing 10 million pounds a week, and Keys, Tyler and Gray were understandably worried about what the future held.

Yet the whole media world was amazed when the two rival operations suddenly merged – or, at least, that was how it was sold to the press. In reality this was a takeover by Sky, as most of BSB’s programming, personnel and technology were soon abandoned. However its sporting contracts were one of the few valuable assets that BSB actually owned, and so were its sporting production team. Previously Sky had barely shown any sport, its only football rights coming from the unlamented Zenith Data Systems Cup, a rather pointless competition competed for by whichever members of the Football League could be bothered entering and ignored by most of the media – though it did at least mean they were able to screen a demented 6-6 draw between Tranmere Rovers and Newcastle United, never to be forgotten by the handful of people who saw it.

Hence while the likes of Heil Honey I’m Home and Jupiter Moon were dumped, Keys, Tyler, Gray and the rest of the BSB sports team were retained under the new set-up, with The Sports Channel being rebranded as Sky Sports. However while Sky had a foothold in the world of top-class football, their coverage remained limited – the England games only came about every few weeks, and their split of the FA Cup with the BBC meant the terrestrial channel always had first choice of the big game. Subscription channels seemed less essential. To encourage an even bigger audience, it was clear Sky needed more exclusive football, on a regular basis. That meant only one thing – the Football League.

By this point, the Football League was in something of a state of flux. The current four-year deal with ITV was to expire in 1992, and Greg Dyke, Chairman of ITV Sport, was eager to continue with it. However he was keen to point out to the big clubs he’d successfully wooed four years previously that it was unlikely that they would enjoy such favourable terms this time round. The lower division clubs had been incensed by the previous negotiations, which had favoured the top flight massively, and had now given themselves much more power over the Football League.

Hence the “Big Five” decided on radical action. They opted to set up a “Super League”, whereby the top clubs would all resign from the Football League en masse, for a new entity to be run by them alone, arranging their own television deals and keeping all the money for themselves. The idea of a breakaway was not new, but this time the top flight approached the Football Association who agreed to support them, and so the Premier League was born extremely quickly – the top clubs in the country were now a separate business and the rights to screen their matches were up for grabs.

ITV were keen to hold on to them, and though they wanted the same sort of package – 20 live matches a season, to be played on Sunday afternoons – they were willing to pay much more. However they had tough competition from Sky, who were also prepared to offer a major cash injection. They also had something else to offer that ITV couldn’t – time. Sky were after at least twice as many matches as ITV were willing to screen, planning to show two live games a week every single week of the season. This made their offer rather more appealing to some of the Premier League’s lesser lights who had enjoyed very little exposure on ITV and could be ensured of more appearances – and hence more money – on Sky.

The BBC were also interested in playing a part in the Premier League, but soon realised the sums being bandied around would be hard to justify on the licence fee. However if they couldn’t afford live football, they felt they could get a good deal for highlights rights. Head of Sport Jonathan Martin and Managing Director of Television Will Wyatt approached Rick Parry, the Chief Executive of the Premier League, who said they had not enjoyed the relationship with ITV and were interested in the possibility of live matches on subscription television and highlights free to air. Hence the BBC decided to join forces with Sky, helping to underwrite their bid for live coverage on the proviso that the Corporation got the highlights.

Despite this, ITV still felt confident, with four of the Big Five teams backing their bid to televise the new league. However, since the last deal Tottenham Hotspur had changed hands and was now owned by Alan Sugar. Sugar was the Chief Executive of Amstrad, and one of their major contracts was producing satellite dishes for Sky. Aware of the extra business that could be generated, Sugar unsurprisingly decided Spurs would support the Sky bid.

Monday 18 May 1992 was decision day and the interested parties gathered in the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. ITV were still hopeful, and were lead to believe they may well have won, before Dyke’s deputy Trevor East spotted Alan Sugar shouting into a mobile phone, saying, “You’ve got to blow them out of the water” – clearly speaking to Sky’s chairman Rupert Murdoch. Hence the Sky bid suddenly increased. Eventually, the results of the vote were announced. The contract to televise live Premier League matches had gone to Sky, and the highlights rights went to the BBC. Four years before ITV had paid £11 million for the rights. This time, Sky offered £304 million.

So, for the first time, league football had been taken from free-to-air television – just nine years after the first live match had been televised. Yet in terms of hours, that BBC highlights deal, which at £20 million was just a fraction of the overall cost, meant there was probably more football on terrestrial TV in 1992-93 than there was when ITV held the rights in 1991-92. On the commercial channel, coverage hadn’t started until October and finished in mid-April, with ITV’s final live match being abandoned halfway through an interview with victorious title-winning Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson because it was time for Bullseye.

Now, Match of the Day was back on Saturday night every week of the season. While one match each weekend was moved to Sunday afternoon for live Sky transmission, the BBC had the rights to show extended highlights of all the Saturday games before anyone else, meaning they enjoyed regular top-flight football for 40 weeks of the year.

Yet inevitably the main interest centred on the new kids on the block and how Sky Sports would take up the challenge of screening the Premier League. The first match selected was the game between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool on Sunday 16 August 1992, and Sky hyped their coverage with umpteen glossy trailers going under the tagline “A Whole New Ball Game”.

Exactly how new the coverage was going to be soon became evident. Sky’s live Sunday matches – going under the brand name of Super Sunday – kicked off at the slightly unusual time of 4pm. This owed much to ITV, as earlier that year, they’d shown a live match between Spurs and Nottingham Forest which, due to a bomb scare at White Hart Lane, ended up commencing over an hour later than the planned 3pm start. Creeping into prime time, the match enjoyed ITV’s best football audience of the season, so Sky decided to schedule all their matches in the late afternoon. This was an age when both BBC1 and ITV were still locked into the “God slot” and required to transmit religious programming at the same time on Sunday teatime.

A further reason was that Sky could be received in the Republic of Ireland, whose league played all their matches on a Sunday afternoon, so the late kick-off went some way to assuage fears nobody would bother going to see Irish matches when they could watch the Premier League instead. Sky still paid compensation, though, which meant every club in the league was able to buy a set of floodlights.

Yet despite the 4pm kick-off, Sky Sports’ coverage actually began at 2pm. This was a major departure, with most live coverage of football on TV before this beginning five or 10 minutes before the kick-off and ending almost immediately after the final whistle. On Sky Sports, they had the luxury of as many hours as possible, so Sky’s pre-match build-up was very much like an FA Cup Final every week, with Richard Keys and his guests discussing all aspects of the game, interspersed with Saturday’s goals, pitch inspections, weather forecasts and celebrity interviews. Similarly, after the final whistle, they stayed on air until gone 7pm for discussion, analysis and phone-ins.

One other innovation was the responsibility of Sky’s Head of Sport David Hill – one of the few members of the team not to have moved over from BSB, instead being imported from Rupert Murdoch’s TV empire in Australia where he’d helped with Kerry Packer’s reinvention of televised cricket. Hill had virtually no knowledge of football, which may have been considered something of a disadvantage. Yet Andy Gray pointed out that he could come to the coverage with a fresh eye – “He’d come up with 10 new ideas for covering the game every day and usually nine of them were total crap. But the remaining one was interesting, so we’d give it a go.” Hence when Hill suggested putting a clock and the score constantly in the corner of the screen so viewers could have a better idea of where they were in the game and anyone coming in late could find out what had happened, Sky tried the idea out and shortly after, every broadcaster took it up.

Hill was also responsible for much of the coverage of Sky’s second live match of the week. This was to be broadcast on Monday evenings and referred to as Monday Night Football. It was a straight steal from ABC’s coverage of American Football in the USA, based on the idea of presenting a big sporting occasion on a night when hardly anyone went out and viewers were depressed at the start of the working week.

With the big clubs regularly playing in Europe or the later stages of the cup competitions in midweek, it would often be some of the less glamorous sides in the Premier League playing on a Monday – indeed, the first match in this slot saw Manchester City take on Queens Park Rangers, hardly the most amazing match-up – but it did at least mean that Sky, unlike ITV, gave all the top flight clubs their fair share of coverage. Yet if the likes of Middlesbrough or Coventry couldn’t prove the glamour, Sky would bring some instead, and the 90 minutes of football on a Monday night were accompanied by a cheerleading troupe, the so-called Sky Strikers, alongside live bands at half time and a massive fireworks display at the final whistle.

This may have been considered a bit tacky but it certainly got Sky noticed, and some found it appealing – Andy Gray said he once encountered a family at Oldham’s ground who had no interest in either team playing but had attended purely to enjoy the surrounding entertainment. However there were some embarrassments, such as The Shamen being booed off at Arsenal as nobody booking them had realised the band were all Spurs fans, while the fireworks were aborted after a stray rocket at Southampton set a nearby garage alight.

Yet this razzmatazz was countered by the presenting team’s credibility. Indeed, one of Sky Sports’ first successes came about almost by accident. After covering one match, the production team were relaxing in the bar when Andy Melvin asked Andy Gray exactly how the winning goal had come about. Gray explained, using beer bottles and ashtrays to represent players and illustrate his tactical view. Melvin was so spellbound that they decided to put this on television. Hence Gray found himself fronting The Boot Room, where he was joined by a succession of coaches to talk tactics with the aid of blackboards, an overhead camera and replay machines (though no beer bottles). This was really the first time such detailed discussion of tactics had ever been seen on TV, helped of course by the hundreds of hours Sky had to fill. Indeed, David Hill was eager to point out that they were not in the business of trivialising football, and that for every hour of live football they showed there was four of discussion and analysis.

The affability of Keys, Tyler and Gray, and the sheer breadth of the output, ensured Sky’s Premier League coverage was largely appreciated by those who tuned in – although those audiences were inevitably many times smaller than those who were able to see the coverage on ITV. But if football widows were hopeful that terrestrial screens would now be largely free of the sport, they were in for a surprise …

<Part Seven