Is there too much football on TV? There might be now, but even in 1981 the question was being asked. This piece from the Arsenal programme of 20 April, 1981 (Arsenal v Palace, won 3-2; we were third in the table, Palace bottom) was prompted by the decision to show the full 90 minutes of the League Cup final replay between Liverpool and West Ham live on television a couple of weeks earlier.It points out that although too much televised football might be bad, as fans wouldn’t see the need to bother going to grounds, showing full matches has the advantage over highlights of not raising expectations – new fans who’d only seen highlights might expect to see 90 minutes of non-stop end-to-end action!
It was possible at the time to “watch the best of six or seven games a week without contributing a penny to the game”. This was a dubious proposition even in 1981, as the TV companies paid and viewers money went to them one way or another.
However, it was recognised that everyone shared a ‘bonanza’ (you don’t hear that word much these days, do you?) from the League Cup final – Wembley receipts of £140,000 each for the clubs, £50,000 each from the replay receipts at Villa Park and a whopping £30,000 each for the replay’s TV rights from ITV, while the Football League themselves took £75,000 from ITV. I think the current figure per game from Sky for the Premier League is about £650,000 per team for UK screenings.
The crowd at Villa Park was 36,693, which was about 10,000 below capacity. They thought about blaming TV for that, but then again there was a recession on and many fans were probably unable to afford it.
The Arsenal programme suggests that there may be a case for “experimenting with one live match a week”, though “it could hardly be played on a Saturday without affecting the attendances at all other matches”. They propose that Thursday evening would be the best time, in view of the dearth of other football on that day, though they do wonder if BBC and ITV would be willing to give up a channel to sport on a Thursday when they were already showing sport on Wednesdays. These were the days of the midweek Sportsnight with Harry Carpenter, and similar though less regular ITV programmes – and of course in the UK we had three channels in total, with satellite TV and dedicated sports channels still the best part of a decade away.
Another sign of the times was that although shirt sponsorship had begun, it wasn’t allowed to be shown on TV on live matches, so the big clubs were already worried about their sponsorship deals being affected by too regular TV appearances. I’ve never understood why there was this ban, given that there had always been advertising all round grounds, and that got shown on TV without a problem.
After 1981 – and the one match a week live idea wasn’t introduced in a hurry, by the way – it was a long slow process towards more televised live football. Even by 1989 and the famous Anfield end of season spectacular, live matches were rare. The decline in popularity of football in the mid-eighties probably stalled the process for a while.
As an aside and a further sign of the times, the two teams in the League Cup final featured only players from the British Isles. West Ham, who lost 2-1 in the replay, played the same ten Englishmen and one Scotsman in both matches, with an English sub and manager. Liverpool selected the Republic of Ireland’s Steve Heighway in the first match and Welshman Ian Rush in the replay, but apart from that played nine Englishmen and three Scots, also with an English manager. Arsenal’s eleven from the Palace match included five Englishmen, one Welshman (new signing Peter Nicholas), one Scotsman (Willie Young), a Northern Irishman (Pat Jennings) and three from the Republic. That was about as cosmopolitan as English football got in those days.
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