The start of a new football season is arguably the most important sporting weekend of the year - far more resonant than, say, the FA Cup final, which, in an era of wall-to-wall live football on TV, fails to excite many beyond the supporters of the two clubs involved. But for many men, and more than a few women, the first weekend of a fresh campaign is a tribal event of huge significance, not least because it is charged with such optimism. It is a hugely life-affirming event - the triumph of hope over experience.
So it's no surprise, really, that the new season sparks something of a media frenzy. The sports desks of many titles (cricket is not followed with any great enthusiasm outside of The Times and The Daily Telegraph) spring back to life, and there's a swell in pagination, not least in the many supplements and guides that precede kick-off. Radio stations, especially those operating outside the pappier end of pop, take on a new tone.
And, of course, it's a big weekend in the television world. Sunderland's last-minute victory over Tottenham last Saturday brought in the first season under a new rights agreement that has Sky sharing access to live games with a rival, Setanta, for the first time. Their rivalry has ensured that the Premier League has become the most lucrative TV sport property in the world - the two companies are paying a combined £1.7 billion over three years.
The BBC still retains Match of the Day highlights on a Saturday night; and even though ITV, Channel 4 and five don't carry any of the on-pitch action themselves, they're aware that there may be a general upswing in activity from male- oriented brands. Meanwhile, schedulers have to second-guess the possible effects of viewing patterns on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
But it's in the pay-TV market that the new season signals the start of a new and possibly definitive battle.
1. Following pressure from the European Union and competition authorities, the Barclays Premier League divided its live rights into six packages. Back in May 2006, following an auction for rights to live games across the next three seasons (2007-8, 2008-9 and 2009-10), four packages of matches were awarded to Sky, which will now carry 92 games a season, with the remaining two packages going to Setanta (46 games a season). Sky also has the rights to broadcast full delayed coverage or extended highlights of every single game. And BT Vision has a piece of the action for the first time. It will carry the Setanta live games and 242 delayed coverage games.
2. So, consumers are confronted with an arguably bewildering range of options - and ways to pay for them. The fact that Sky and Virgin Media have been squabbling since February does not help, either. One of the channels withdrawn from Virgin Media's cable systems following the carriage dispute with Sky was Sky Sports News. Now, as part of a growing alliance between Virgin and Setanta, that's about to replaced with Setanta Sport News - a channel available free to all Virgin cable subscribers. Setanta's main subscription channels, including access to its live football, have also been made available at no extra charge to Virgin's top-tier subscribers. Meanwhile, on satellite and Freeview, a Setanta subscription will cost you £9.99 a month.
3. Access to Sky's live games is via the sports channel packages on either satellite or cable. The price for its sports package (which also includes general entertainment channels) is set to increase slightly from £34 to £35 a month.
4. BT Vision is offering access to delayed-coverage games for £4 a month; or delayed coverage plus the Setanta games for £12 a month.
5. Recent months have seen a frenzy of activity from Sky and Virgin Media, who have spent, respectively, £60 million and £32 million on knocking each other. On top of that, Sky, Setanta and BT Vision have been promoting their football credentials through TV and poster campaigns. Each is estimated to be spending upwards of £5 million. The highest-profile campaign, thanks to the fact that it features the iconic former BBC and ITV football presenter Des Lynam (who's now part of the onscreen team), is Setanta's.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- There's a slight upswing in activity from male-oriented brands at this time of year - but it's not as pronounced as it once was. Nor is there much by way of special football-related creative work.
- That's principally because football is a worldwide phenomenon - there's some sort of major television football available just about every day of the year these days.
- Chris Hayward, the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, says: "We're moving towards an era where there's very little in the way of themed creative content developed for specific football events, especially when we're talking about global advertisers. They'll create stuff that can be used throughout the season - and, for instance, we didn't see much in the way of new stuff created for the last World Cup. We've moved towards a situation where the concept of the close season is meaningless."
- But advertisers will continue to watch the effect of the Virgin/Sky spat on audiences, particularly now that Setanta has become an important factor. Anything that increases sports-related impacts in the market will be welcomed.
- There are two clear media winners at the start of this season - the outdoor medium, which, as every year, gets a boost thanks to football-related activity from the likes of Sky and Setanta. This year, as the Sky/Virgin battle has focused increasingly on detailed, densely worded knocking copy, newspapers have been coining it, too.