Part Fifteen: “Born Out of a Love of the Game”

By Steve Williams

First published May 2008

Many broadcasting success stories started in the most inauspicious of circumstances. 25 years ago, for example, Sky were pumping out ancient black and white American serials for a few uninterested viewers in Swindon. Yet there are surely few more unlikely places for a television network to take its first steps than the Top Hat Ballroom in Ealing. However in June 1990, this unassuming location saw the first ever transmission from a company that, less than two decades on, was turning over three hundred million pounds a year and had become a major player in televised football.

Its inception took place during that year’s World Cup. England and the Republic of Ireland had been drawn in the same group and, to avoid any team claiming a competitive advantage, their final group games had to be played simultaneously. The BBC obviously opted to screen England’s crucial match against Egypt, which meant that, in the days before digital off-shoots, Ireland’s equally crucial match against Holland wasn’t shown live in the UK – much to the chagrin of Irish ex-pats.

Two of those, however, decided to do something about it, and Michael O’Rourke and Leonard Ryan grabbed the rights to show the game, hired out the Top Hat for the evening and charged an entrance fee. Searching for a name to market the event under, O’Rourke and Ryan recalled a famous name from Celtic mythology, and so this small-scale public screening in front of a hundred or so fans was the first ever transmission from Setanta Sports.

Given the cost of licensing the game, hiring the technology (which they’d acquired from British Aerospace’s short-lived Sportscast experiment) and laying on some nibbles, the pair ended up making a loss from the evening, but it was clear there was a market in screening live sport, so more transmissions followed, often screening Gaelic sport such as hurling that British television wasn’t interested in. Later in the decade, too, it expanded to offer the same sort of service for those with Irish roots now living in the USA, and moved from closed-circuit pub screenings to full-blown TV networks in America and Ireland.

In the UK, too, Setanta Sports began broadcasting on satellite TV, most notably with NASN, a channel screening baseball, basketball and American football. Yet this was clearly always going to remain minority viewing, and if the company wanted to become a major player in the UK, it would need to become involved in domestic sport – not just showing it overseas but offering it exclusively to British viewers. Its first opportunity came from Scotland.

Scottish football had endured an even more torrid relationship with television than its English counterpart, with live league games not becoming commonplace until the 1990s, with BBC Scotland and the Scottish ITV companies sharing the rights between them – much as their English counterparts had done. Then, inevitably, after seeing the mountains of cash coming into the English game, the Scottish Premier League threw their lot in with satellite television too, with live matches arriving on Sky Sports in 1995.

However, the English top flight obviously took priority, so Scottish football was always the poor relation on Sky Sports, with live games shoehorned into whatever slot was available – including the ever-unpopular Sunday evenings – and news very much the “and finally” item on magazine shows. Hence after a while the Scottish Premier League started desiring a network on which they’d get top billing, and in 2002 they announced they would not be renewing their deal with Sky and, instead, would take the unusual step of launching their own channel.

However SPL TV, as it was known, never made it to the screens. A unanimous vote of all the Premier League clubs was required to go ahead with the plan, but two said no – Celtic and Rangers. The Glasgow giants didn’t believe the channel would generate the sort of money or audiences they could find elsewhere. This meant that, with just weeks before the start of the new season, the Scottish Premier League found itself without a TV deal.

Unsurprisingly, Sky weren’t interested in signing a new deal, so the SPL had no alternative but to turn to the BBC. Hence for the next two years, viewers in Scotland could watch a live league match for free every week on terrestrial TV – something fans in England had been unable to do for a decade. The Old Firm derbies were even broadcast across the UK. Yet this old-school contract brought about a familiar complaint – attendances at grounds were affected because everyone could see the games free. When this short-term two-year deal came to an end in 2004, therefore, it was a no-brainer that the SPL would return to a subscription channel – and Setanta Sports were looking for British content to get a foothold in the UK’s affections.

Setanta Sports’ screening of the Scottish Premier League got off to a rather uncertain start, with some of the coverage being rather basic. However the team – which included former BBC Scotland commentators Rob MacLean and Jock Brown – started to gel and the programmes improved. Besides, there was nowhere else to go, as the highlights rights were bundled in with the live games. Those who didn’t want to subscribe had to wait until Monday when Scottish TV showed the weekend’s goals.

At the same time Setanta started their SPL coverage, Sky Sports began their new contract for English football which gave them more live games than ever before. Yet their dominance over the Premier League on television was watched closely by the EC’s Competition Commissioners, and so, when the next rights deal came around, to take effect from 2007, the Premier League announced they would be selling six packages of 23 games, and no company could buy all six. Sky’s 15-year monopoly on live Premier League football would be coming to an end.

Although the packages each contained 23 matches, they were of differing value – one lot, for example, would allow its holders to make first choice of match each weekend, and screen it in the favoured slot of Sunday afternoons. Others contained less favourable picks and less convenient kick-off times. Again, though, the size of the packages meant it was highly unlikely a mainstream terrestrial broadcaster like BBC1 or ITV1 would be able to afford any live games, nor fit them in their schedules. The the bidding was therefore limited to Sky Sports and – the only other broadcaster with the money and dedicated channels – Setanta Sports.

When the rights were announced, invariably Sky Sports continued as the major player. They paid £1.3 billion for four of the six packages, including the very best option which would give them first dibs on the top games between the big clubs. The other two packages did indeed go to Setanta, who now had exclusive rights to the second choice of games some weekends and the third choice every weekend, which they would screen on Saturday teatimes and Monday evenings. The BBC, meanwhile, kept highlights of the lot.

As usual there was over a year between the announcement and the new contracts actually coming into force in the 2007/08 season. In the meantime, the other major football contract came up for renewal, for England and the FA Cup, for the rights to screen matches from the 2008/09 season. The BBC and Sky were the incumbents, but since they’d won the last contract, there was a new Chief Executive of the Football Association – Brian Barwick, a previous Head of Sport at both the BBC and ITV – and a new Chairman of ITV; Michael Grade, who had recently, and surprisingly, defected from the BBC. It was rumoured Grade, a big football fan, was looking to beef up ITV’s sporting content, given their current live football portfolio consisted only of the Champions League.

In March 2007, it was announced the rights had been won by ITV and Setanta. ITV paid £275 million for first dibs on the FA Cup and live competitive England games, while Setanta paid £145 million for second choice Cup ties, England friendlies and various other games that didn’t fit on a mainstream channel – under-21 matches, the FA Trophy, the England women’s team. The BBC and Sky were outbid, although reports suggested the Beeb hadn’t just lost the rights on price; Brian Barwick had been upset by what he felt was unnecessarily negative comments about the England team by the likes of Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen – one “insider” being quoted in The Independent as saying, “Barwick made it clear that the FA had a problem with the tone of the BBC analysis and the inference was made that this could be a problem in the negotiations.”

Although the BBC’s defeat was the main talking point in the media, the rise of Setanta was the most intriguing aspect – they were now a major player in English football, with the crown jewels of the Premier League, the FA Cup and England all in their grasp; not bad considering they were still yet to screen a single fixture involving an English club. However they didn’t have the first choice of games in any of these competitions, with viewers able to see all the top matches on other channels. Were we likely to see another ITV Digital?

Setanta thought not. O’Rourke said, “We don’t expect to take thousands of viewers from Sky. We’re not after them. We think there’s a market place for viewers to use us in addition. We also believe there’s a large constituency of disenfranchised viewers who want premium live sport and have been priced out by current providers.” Setanta claimed they were aiming at two markets – fans who couldn’t bear to miss a single minute of live football on TV, but more importantly casual viewers who didn’t fancy shelling out £30-plus a month for the four Sky Sports channels.

Indeed, unlike Sky Sports, Setanta was available on the digital terrestrial platform for a tenner a month. In addition, Setanta was able to benefit from a dispute between Sky and Virgin Media, who after taking over NTL and Telewest were now the only cable operator in the UK. Earlier in the year the companies had fallen out over how much Virgin were paying Sky to carry their channels – though not Sky Sports, which was arranged under a separate deal – which had led to the likes of Sky One being removed from the cable platform. Eager to grab any competitive advantage over the satellite company, Virgin promptly arranged to offer Setanta Sports free for all subscribers to its main package – thus making it available to over a million more viewers.

If any viewers still weren’t convinced by the price, though, who better to persuade them than Des Lynam? Three years after his retirement from ITV, probably the most famous sports broadcaster of his generation signed up to Setanta, announcing, “I think it’s going to be great. It’s a new kid on the block for us. Sky could do with a rival and it’s healthy for the sport to have another main player – and I think Setanta will be a main player.”

However Lynam, enjoying his new freelance schedule, was not joining Setanta as a full-time host; more a lucky mascot. He appeared in the company’s advertising campaigns and, on the channel itself, would have a roaming brief, interviewing the big names in football like Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger to accompany their live matches. He would add a bit of authority to a new, fresh team assembled by the channel, with former ITV1 host Angus Scott anchoring the games, and punditry from the likes of Tim Sherwood, Les Ferdinand and Steve McManaman, who said, “We’ve all played numerous times in the Premier League and I think maybe that’s what Setanta were trying to go for – that younger generation who have been there and done that recently.”

Indeed, 15 years after being seen as the brash young upstarts of football broadcasting, Sky Sports – who had screened their 1000th live Premier League match at the end of the previous season – were now selling themselves as the established and trusted option, with an advertising campaign concentrating on all the famous players and matches they’d aired. Setanta, meanwhile, were revelling in the role as underdog, with their advertising campaign featuring romantic images of kids kicking balls about, and the slogan, “Born out of a love for the game”.

In the summer of 2007, Setanta geared up for their coverage by screening a truckload of pre-season friendlies. Finally on Saturday 11 August, the outside broadcast trucks went off to Birmingham for live coverage of Aston Villa’s game against Liverpool. Angus Scott hosted, Steve McManaman was his sidekick, and in the commentary box was regular ITV1 voice Jon Champion, who had hammered out a deal to divide his time equally between the two broadcasters.

Sky were clearly taking this newcomer seriously. They began to aggressively schedule their live games from the Football League opposite Setanta’s Premier League coverage on Saturday evenings, and it was rumoured they’d also informed all potential contributors that if they worked for Setanta they would not be welcome back on Sky Sports.

One other problem Setanta encountered came with their choice of matches. Over the course of their 46 games a season they were allowed to screen each team a maximum of 10 times, and they initially announced that, with this in mind, 40 of their games would feature one of the “big four” – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – who in recent years had always been challenging for the title. However thanks to their prescribed kick-off times, this proved not to be the case – the police were extremely choosy about what games took place on Saturday teatimes, in case alcohol-fuelled fans caused trouble, and as Sky had found out in the past, the big teams were often too busy in Europe to play on Monday nights. Indeed, in their first season, the most seen team on Setanta turned out to be the resolutely mid-table Newcastle United.

Still, Setanta did manage to screen some big games over the course of the season, albeit often more by luck than judgement, including Chelsea’s dramatic 1-1 draw with Wigan that derailed their title bid, Derby County’s only win of a dismal season, and Manchester United’s humiliation of Newcastle in one of Kevin Keegan’s first games back as manager of the North East side.

There were a few embarrassments – such as the channel missing the winning goal in Derby’s victory over Newcastle as they were screening a replay of an earlier incident – but generally the coverage was hugely professional. As Angus Scott said, “Ultimately, you’re covering a football match. You can’t reinvent the wheel but what we will do is make it easier for viewers. There’s no point having a gimmick if it doesn’t work.”

That said, a few more gimmicks might have made a difference, as while the coverage was perfectly adequate, it was rather dull. The likes of Scott, McManaman and Champion knew what they were talking about but didn’t really have the sparkle that a Des Lynam or an Andy Gray brought to proceedings, and they never really managed to bring across the glitz and glamour that Sky specialised in. If the match didn’t live up to expectations, there wasn’t really much to entertain the casual viewer.

The same was true of the channel’s spin-off programming. While Sky offered the likes of Soccer Saturday, with Jeff Stelling’s running gags, and the all-out comedy of Soccer AM, the flagship series on Setanta Sports was Macca’s Monday Night, in which Scott, McManaman and a guest would simply look at the weekend’s goals again and pass comment, even though they’d already been analysed over and over again on Match of the Day and in the Sunday and Monday papers. Meanwhile Football Matters was a dull round-table discussion between a bunch of hacks that was pointlessly scheduled on Wednesday nights, normally opposite live football on other channels.

Still, at least they were up and running, and Setanta’s commercial director Mark Mohan suggested, “Even the mainstream broadcasters that we have competed against for rights are, in a general sense, very happy to see us – they see us as bringing in welcome competition. When we acquired the Premier League, we had positive wishes from almost all the broadcasters.”

For the viewers, with 138 live Premier League games a season, as well as umpteen other live matches from other competitions, it was almost physically impossible to watch any more football. But was this too much of a good thing?

<Part Fourteen