Walking with the devil



Robert Johnson, so legend has it, was fulfilled with such an overwhelming desire to become a blues guitarist that by instruction, and on the stroke of midnight, he met with the devil at a remote crossroads. Johnson learned to play a six string with such mastery he was able to create the music for which he became famous. Johnson’s Faustian deal was, of course, little more than a marketing exercise but while we’re on the subject, Sir Alex Ferguson this week accused football of making a similar deal with the devil. Take the money and pay the price, declared Sir Alex, who believes that television companies now have far too much power over fixture schedules and little regard for the needs of players, teams and managers.

“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price. Television is God at the moment,” Ferguson told BBC North West Tonight.

“It shows itself quite clearly because when you see the fixture lists come out now, they can pick and choose whenever they want the top teams on television. You get some ridiculous situations when you’re playing on Wednesday night in Europe and then at lunchtime the following Saturday. You ask any manager if they would pick that themselves and there’d be no chance.”

Ignoring the obvious antonym in Ferguson’s argument, this is a familiar refrain from the Scot, who both resents the modern business of football and yet defends the Glazernomic ideals of Manchester United’s globally-indebted owners. This has always been Sir Alex’ contradiction. That is an aside of course. Ferguson’s real beef is the genuine emasculation that United’s control-freak coach feels when it comes to fixture schedules.

But there is, of course, a far wider point to all of this. Modern football has sold itself to the beast and Beelzebub must eat! The Champions League’s expansion, the ever-growing international calendar and rigours of the modern game have placed huge physical and mental demands on players. And while coaches will always desire the greatest possible preparation time between matches, schedulers want the most attractive fixtures – frequently involving United – to kick-off at premium ratings times.

Supporters too have long been ignored in the game of football fixtures business. What price United’s 25 February fixture at Norwich being moved to the Monday night or late Sunday afternoon to suit schedulers? It is a hypothetical of course but few could be surprised. And in that there is a précis for the modern football business that at its heart views fans as customers, customers as revenue and revenue as potential profit.

Driving the mill is the broadcast industry, which at last count paid some £1.8 billion for domestic Premier League rights. Another £1.2 billion flows into the English game from overseas rights while, as one of the biggest markets, Premier League teams benefit hugely in the Champions League pool. In fact United’s accounts showed around £120 million flowing into the club from TV revenues alone in the last financial year.

In this Ferguson and the supporters, often at loggerheads when it comes to the club’s finances over the past six years, are soul-mates. Well, almost.

But fans must also look the devil in the face and ask whether they would make Johnson’s choice. Broadcasters pay, in part at least, for the players that grace Old Trafford, the all-seater comfort and the Premier League ‘product’. Is this a price that fans are willing to pay? Sold out stadiums and a legion of AON-branded shirts walking down Sir Matt Busby Way says Faust wanders among us and we love his choice. That is the deal supporters make. The deal Ferguson makes. The deal football itself has made. Money begets money, so the old economic theory goes, which in turn  begets the men who love money and will do anything for it.

One wonders what Sir Matt would make of it all. After all, here is a man who when questioned about United’s comparative wealth in the 1960s said tersely: “Money in the bank? That’s great but I’d rather see it on the pitch?” Ferguson and United’s supporters would surely agree.

Yet in the competitive world of modern football, with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations set to be phased in over the next three years, the pressure to generate revenue can only increase. It is the law of competition and clubs face this whether they generate income from supporters via ticket sales, indirectly from commercial sponsors or from the broadcast world. The deal football has struck is one it can no longer break.

Faust might might lend a knowing look. Faust, so the fable goes, is assuredly corrupted by his personal deal with the devil, and when it comes to an end, Lucifer carries him to Hell. Johnson’s music, by contrast, is revered to this day as one of the most important contributions to the Blues canon. Choose your devil carefully and then love him for it.

Share Button
  • RobDiablo

    I have conjectured that one of the main reasons football has not reached the popularity in the U.S. that it deserves, is that the 45 minutes of non-stop action in each half does not provide advertisers with enough opportunities to sell beer, automobiles, and hair-restoration solutions. In the States, TV exists only to sell shit to people who don’t need it, and going longer than fifteen minutes without trying to equate sex to hair gel, just doesn’t work for the bosses.

    Ice Hockey posed a similar problem for the Ad Men, but they found a solution. So, don’t be surprised if, someday, you are sitting at Old Trafford watching a match and, the first time the ball goes out to touch after seven or eight minutes of play, you see the players all come to the sideline to rehydrate and receive instruction. 30-seconds or so later, the players go back to playing and you are left thinking, “what the f*ck?” Congratulations, you’ve just witnessed your first “television time-out”. Enjoy. There will be plenty more.

    • Mongoletsi

      // So, don’t be surprised if, someday, you are sitting at Old Trafford watching a match //

      I think more than a few folk here would be surprised to actually find themself at a game ;o)

      The “tv break” makes sense for clubs though; the longer folk are in the ground, the more overpriced Pukka Pies and PG Tips we’ll buy!

      I’m not against it actually – if it’s only once per half and before 80 minutes. I’d rather some bint in a bra tried to sell me some shit I don’t want, than see Drogba rolling around with his latest agonising “injury”.

    • Zombie Cucumber

      Rob – As a yank who loves hockey, I can assure you that virtually no one in the States watches it on TV. The National Hockey League doesn’t even have a television contract.

  • LA Red

    Stopped watching sports over here in the USA for just that reason about 18 years ago. I cannot stand the interruptions that are present in sports on the USA side of the pond. It can literally take 30+ minutes to finish the last 2-5 minutes of a football (throwball) or basketball game. Time which the sponsors gladly pack to the gills with commercial after commercial. It is totally rediculous.

    One of the main loves I have for watching football is the complete lack of advertising for 45 minutes at a time. I can completely unplug from the blatant consumerism of daily life. For 45 minutes at a time, nothing else matters but game. If the day comes, when football begins to feature advertising breaks, I’ll find some other way to follow United. I’ll do it even if I have to resort to semaphore, all to avoid stupid commercials.

  • reddread

    Brilliant article, Ed. A great read.

    Rob, that thought fills me with horror and dread. I hate the fact that we already get adverts when the players are out on the pitch before kick off, and 10 mins of adverts to 5 mins of analysis at half time. If TV time-outs were introduced here, I wouldn’t be able to watch football any more. And that would make me a sad panda…

  • captainhormone

    americanisation of the game would lead to riots

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    Commenter said:
    I have conjectured that one of the main reasons football has not reached the popularity in the U.S. that it deserves, is that the 45 minutes of non-stop action in each half does not provide advertisers with enough opportunities to sell beer, automobiles, and hair-restoration solutions. In the States, TV exists only to sell shit to people who don’t need it, and going longer than fifteen minutes without trying to equate sex to hair gel, just doesn’t work for the bosses.

    Ice Hockey posed a similar problem for the Ad Men, but they found a solution. So, don’t be surprised if, someday, you are sitting at Old Trafford watching a match and, the first time the ball goes out to touch after seven or eight minutes of play, you see the players all come to the sideline to rehydrate and receive instruction. 30-seconds or so later, the players go back to playing and you are left thinking, “what the f*ck?” Congratulations, you’ve just witnessed your first “television time-out”. Enjoy. There will be plenty more.

    There’s a lot of truth in that… especially the advertising mentality… that’s exactly how they think… American football, for example has many little breaks because of the nature of the game… run a play-huddle-run a play-huddle… and you’ll often see these annoying little 10/20 second blurbs to sell you beer and McCains chicken wings.

    But I don’t think football will follow… the fans just won’t have it… we’ve seen how it works in the States and the fans would fight hard to keep that from happening…

    … I think!

  • RobDiablo

    Alfonso Bedoya said:
    But I don’t think football will follow… the fans just won’t have it… we’ve seen how it works in the States and the fans would fight hard to keep that from happening…
    … I think!

    I’d like to believe that, but I don’t. The Ad Men are patient, persistent, and fiendishly clever. Don’t expect them to mount a frontal assault on the game; they will nibble at the corners instead, and set things in motion such that their way of “solving” perceived problems will seem the most reasonable.

    • Mongoletsi

      “If you work in advertising or marketing… kill yourself.
      No, seriously. This is not a joke. You’re thinking, there’s gonna be a joke coming — there’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. Kill yourself.” – Bill Hicks

      • DeadRevel

        :)
        One of my favourite Hicks moments.

        We already do have this system in England – cricket. I doubt we will ever see the mid-half ad break though. At least not for a long time.
        Then again, if video replays are brought in then who knows.

  • RedAlert260599

    10 out of 10 for a good read and excellent comments. Just realised that Robert Johnson character in Oh Brother Where Art Thou – was a real person. Like Baby-Face Nelson – er, I mean George. Great film too.

  • Zombie Cucumber

    A Yank here.
    Another insidious piece of TV influence is playing itself out in the US, with the National Throwball League. The networks are pressing the NFL to extend the season by two games.

    Given the horrific injury rate in American professional football, especially head injuries, the whole concept is cold-blooded as hell. And it will probably happen.

  • Spike

    Bolluxs
    I want to see more of those Meerkats and Opera Singers belting it out, makes football worthwhile watching before and after….and inbetween.
    (honest, prefer the meerkats to the halftime commentary shite)
    cunts!

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    Commenter said:
    Rob – As a yank who loves hockey, I can assure you that virtually no one in the States watches it on TV.

    Maybe not… but the Canucks do… they live for hockey… same passion as football here.

    “Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and ching’ tu madre! Come out from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.”

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    Commenter said:
    A Yank here.
    Another insidious piece of TV influence is playing itself out in the US, with the National Throwball League. The networks are pressing the NFL to extend the season by two games.

    Given the horrific injury rate in American professional football, especially head injuries, the whole concept is cold-blooded as hell. And it will probably happen.

    It was the ad men that were mainly responsible for the change to the baseball season… bringing in the ridiculous wild card shite… adding an extra set of playoffs.

    • Zombie Cucumber

      Agreed. And every major sport in the US has had their season overextended: baseball from 150 games to 162, throwball from 12 to 14, hockey…you get the picture.

      The result is that each season is absurdly long and marred by extended periods where the players are coasting and conserving energy.

      A few seasons ago, the NHL had a strike-shortened season of about 50 games. Every game mattered and they were played at full speed. Riveting.

  • Just1n

    Commenter said:
    “If you work in advertising or marketing… kill yourself.
    No, seriously. This is not a joke. You’re thinking, there’s gonna be a joke coming — there’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. Kill yourself.” – Bill Hicks

    That man was a prophet who died way to early.

  • baloo

    Just1n said:
    That man was a prophet who died way to early.

    Genius

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo