MEDIA FORUM: Will TV's new football fixtures score with viewers? - The season kicks off with a bewildering array of viewing options Are TV companies right to broadcast so much action? Ian Darby writes

Aah ... the start of a new season: the smell of freshly cut grass,

the roar of the crowd, the mind-boggling cost of paying to watch your

team on TV.



Armchair fans and advertisers are now footing the bill for the wages of

Juan Veron and Sol Campbell via the several big TV broadcast deals that

are now in place. Sky, ITV Sport and the BBC all have some live football

to show this season and Sky and ITV have introduced full pay-per-view

services for the first time. The football-crazy may now pay up to £1,000 to tune in to more than 400 hours of live coverage a month plus

The Premiership, ITV's peaktime Saturday reworking of Match of the

Day.



But can any sane individual take this much football? Has the lustre of

live action worn off and are advertisers still convinced that football

is a great opportunity to target a freespending audience of young

males?



Is ITV's decision to show Premiership highlights at 7pm on Saturday

going to be a winner with advertisers and viewers? Does the existence of

several broadcasters, each with their own piece of the live football

pie, create confusion in the marketplace?



ITV snatched away the three-year package to show Premiership highlights

from the BBC. It claims that The Premiership, with odd-sounding

innovations such as the ProZone and the Tactics Truck, will transform

Saturday evening coverage. It hopes that the move to 7pm will encourage

more families to watch the action, in addition to the core young male

following that Match of the Day had.



Coca-Cola, which paid £50 million to sponsor all of ITV1's

Premiership coverage, claims that football has lost none of its appeal.

Coca-Cola's marketing director, Charlotte Oades, says: "ITV's

Premiership programme will change Saturday nights for British football

fans. Coca-Cola is excited to be involved in an initiative that will

allow more people, whether watching with family or friends, the chance

to enjoy Premiership football at home."



ITV, perhaps because it paid £183 million for the rights, is

talking up the prospects for both The Premiership and ITV Sport, the

dedicated sports channel that launched last weekend. ITV's controller of

sport, Brian Barwick, believes that the move of the highlights package

will create a wider audience. It will also offer a faster-paced style

that will set the news agenda for the football weekend, he says. "It's

an absolute fact that seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds were not up

watching Match of the Day. We are attempting to play to the widest

possible audience."



But will advertisers pay premium rates to target this audience? Greg

Grimmer, a managing partner at Optimedia, thinks the 7pm scheduling is a

strong move. He says: "The BBC messed it up and never gave football a

great slot. Now it will be a really good family appointment to view.



The 18- to 34-year-old men will still be there but the likes of Unilever

will also love it. It remains to be seen if ITV will charge it at a

ridiculous rate but, in principal, it's a great opportunity."



Mark Palmer, a managing partner at OMD UK, agrees that The Premiership

moving to ITV will create commercial opportunities but says that it

raises some issues about ITV. "From a commercial point of view it is a

good move. The downside is that it's a lazy approach. It will fill a lot

of airtime but my genuine concern is that this will become formulaic

with a diet of football, Formula 1 and soap operas."



ITV is also competing with Sky and the BBC on live football. ITV Sport

will show Champions League football, featuring Manchester United and

Arsenal and, probably, Liverpool and Celtic, and it has bought the

rights to show Worthington Cup and First Division action. Sky Digital

will offer about 300 live football matches across five sports channels

and Sky Box Office.



Sky is offering 40 live Premiership matches via pay-per-view for each

match or for an extra one-off payment. Its main subscription package

will offer matches from the FA Premiership, Scotland, FA Cup, UEFA Cup

and England internationals.



The BBC will show England home fixtures, FA Cup matches and perhaps some

European action.



Individually, each broadcaster's offering is not confusing, but the big

picture is complex. Palmer says: "There are the core things -

Premiership, Champions League and the FA Cup after the third round. The

rest you just glaze over. The England-Germany match will be massive. But

there is the chance that the premium element will disappear. You once

had BMW in football but now they might get a bit more excited about the

Ryder Cup."



He adds: "A restaurant analogy is the right one to use when discussing

football broadcasting. When a restaurant can only get salmon in season

it is interesting for diners to eat, but when you get salmon every week

and it becomes fishcakes you soon get fed up with it."



Barwick disagrees: "I don't think this is an issue. There are some

peripherals that you don't understand why they are being shown - such as

showing pre-season friendlies. When people subscribe to ITV Sport they

are paying for the choice to watch over a season and probably won't

watch every game, but you can never have too much good football."



Barclaycard, the main sponsor of the Premier League, backs this

view.



Richard Mackey, its sponsorship manager, says: "I've worked at doing

sports sponsorship deals for five years and the appetite for football is

still growing. Fans will always be hungry for top-quality football."



Not Barclays' problem perhaps, but does a Nationwide League clash

between, say, Crewe and Preston really fit into this category? However,

Grimmer argues that fans won't feel aggrieved by pay-per-view or the

fact that football is split between so many different platforms: "Even

with the splitting of rights across Sky, cable and ITV Digital and the

advent of pay-per-view as well as subscription, the most ardent fan

isn't going to be paying much more than the price of a season ticket at

Rushden and Diamonds for his televised football."



Grimmer adds: "For advertisers, the days of having to choose whether to

pay a premium to reach football fans via Sky Sports will be diminished

by the sheer amount of football airtime available. Obviously, the

success of ITV Sport in stopping the churn rate 'enjoyed' by ONdigital

will be critical if worthwhile numbers are to be delivered by the new

ITV channels.



In the longer term the fashionability of football is sure to decline and

then, as with docusoaps, reality TV and the rest, the minutage will

shrink to be replaced by the next fad."