Can the Premier League be blamed for dealing with the devil?

Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments at the weekend that the Premier League is now essentially at the beck and call of TV companies (by which, if we’re honest, he essentially means Sky Sports) is an accusation that will ring true with many a football fan who can’t afford £30 a month for live football. In his latest rant, though, Ferguson seems to have somewhat missed the point.

Sky’s warped televising schedule, which demands games kicking off at 12.45 and 5.30 on a Saturday as well as midday, 2pm and/or 4pm on a Sunday – and, increasingly, a Monday night game – is far from popular with any football fan who doesn’t have access to Sky. The regular fan among us is missing out on some games altogether, with the BBC not broadcasting highlights of the Monday night clash, and those wanting to turn up and watch a game are having their weekends dictated to them by a television schedule they won’t even be following.

But Ferguson is forgetting that TV deals are not the only reason why fixtures are moved. Manchester United, in particular, are playing a lot of games on Sundays right now – a pattern very familiar to Old Trafford fans. This is primarily because of the large amount of midweek games United play in the Champions’ League and League Cup throughout the first half of the season. The Europa League clubs, particularly Stoke it seems, are similarly struggling to deal with the pile-up of fixtures.

That said, Ferguson was irate not at playing the Stoke fixture on a Saturday, but at the fact it was scheduled at 5.30 in the evening, when the club has a crucial Champions’ League fixture on Tuesday.

The Scot used the term “the devil” to describe the TV companies who pay well over £1bn for their three-year rights packages, and claimed that the clubs of the Premier League “don’t see enough” of the profits the league rakes in from selling its rights in over 200 countries. His outburst does raise a bigger question, though – is it worth the money for Premier League teams to have their schedules set by outside investors?

Nobody can argue that Sky’s money (and, more recently, that of Setanta and ESPN) has transformed the world of professional football more than any other sport. Its massive budgets and all-encompassing coverage have fundamentally changed the once sneered-upon experience of watching live football. The astronomical sums of money Sky pumps into the English game has put the Premier League on television screens across the planet, made countless footballers richer than they could ever have imagined and placed English clubs – principally United, who as 12-time Premier League champions have received more of Rupert Murdoch’s money than anyone else – at the pinnacle of European and world football. Then there’s the parachute payments to relegated clubs, the trickle-down money the Premier League pays out of TV profits to the Football League, and the money the FA sets aside for its grassroots programmes.

Ferguson may be right, though, to claim that all this progress has come at a cost. Sky will make far more money from advertising and subscriptions in the next three years than it spent to secure the Premier League fixtures it will televise in that time. More than that, though, current broadcasters Sky and ESPN have bought the rights, it seems, to televise games whenever they like. The ten Premier League fixtures this weekend kicked off at five different start times – and that’s with just one match (Villa-QPR) on Sunday. It is conceivable that we will see a weekend this season with seven different kick-off times.

While it is undeniable that Sky’s money has played a large part in making the Premier League the greatest league in the world, many would say that that transformation has come at too great a price.

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