Three things to improve football coverage

Over recent years, there has been, at least at surface level, increasing competition for football coverage. The arrival of BT Sport’s Premier League coverage in 2013 broke Sky’s domestic monopoly and since then an increasing number of streaming platforms have arrived on the scene for foreign (to the UK) league.

Despite this, the format of football coverage in the UK has largely stayed the same for years. While I would welcome more radical experimentation, I have three specific suggestions that I think would improve football coverage in the UK.

1. No more close-ups and replays while the ball is in play

Or replays for that matter. As far as I can tell, no-one who actually likes football would rather watch close-ups and replays when we could be watching the actual match being played.

I don’t have an issue with replays themselves. It’s just that there’s plenty of time to show any key highlights at half-time or full-time.

As for close-ups, you don’t have to go full tactical-cam for the whole match. However, keeping the pitch and match context visible helps to understand what’s going on. Much of the vaunted beauty of football happens in the interaction between the players and spaces throughout a given play. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that with 22 players and 1 ball, some of this must happen off-the-ball.

Finally, when I say “in-play”, I am including the run-up to set pieces. Just because the ball hasn’t been thrown/kicked yet, doesn’t mean we’re not interested in what’s happening on the pitch.

So why does this happen? In 2017, I had a chance encounter with a sports cameraperson (is that the right terminology?) that could shed some light on this/be an entirely unrepresentative anecdote (delete as appropriate). They said they were increasingly being asked to shoot sports more like an action film. While I can see the appeal of this as a technical challenge, as a sports viewer I don’t want to see an action film. I want to watch the sports. It’s literally what I’m here for. Just show the sports, please.

2. Give us the option of no commentary

For matches with no crowds, BT have offered coverage the option of coverage with/without fake crown noise on separate channels. I have appreciated having this option and am grateful for BT’s flexibility. I miss the organic crowd noise and for me, the canned stuff is a poor substitute that I’d rather do without.

With the ever-increasing digitisation of well, literally everything, having limited channels to broadcast on is surely becoming less of an issue. So why not take advantage of that and give us the option of watching without commentary at all?

This wouldn’t have to be available on a TV channel, per-se. As a niche option, this could be offered only as an option on BT’s streaming service (i.e. via the website and through their apps).

3. No more discussion of refereeing decisions

I would love to see broadcasters outlaw discussion of refereeing incidents. Yes, it’s an important part of the game. But all too often it turns the entire half-time and/or post-match discussion into a quagmire of unsubstantiated back and forth. These discussions tend not to be based on any hard evidence, which means that they have no clear end point. and if you’ve watched more than about 10 matches in the last few seasons you’ve probably seen an extremely similar incident (and ensuing discussion) once or twice already. In my view, the result is that talking about refereeing decisions in the studio adds very little to the viewer’s experience or understanding.

The opportunity cost of these debates is high. Particularly after the first half when there’s not a huge amount of time available. Couldn’t we use that time to talk about how the team’s set ups left their defenders more isolated in the box, instead of arguing about whether the defender’s challenge was poorly timed enough to be a penalty?

Recent experiments in this area have not helped matters. The addition of celebrity referees to the broadcast team to have the final word was an extremely reactive decision that to me points to a lack of a clear direction in matchday football coverage. In short, the decision to add referee-pundits attempts to find an answer to any given argument, rather than asking whether the argument is a worthwhile part of football coverage at all.

Tying it all together

I think what brings these points together is that they all address problems that (in my opinion) stem from a lack of vision from the major UK matchday broadcasters at the moment.

This has become especially clear since the mid-pandemic season restart. While this has lead to increased experimentation in sports coverage, much of the experimentation has simply been to try and recreate the 2019 sports experience. With a specific direction and viewer experience in mind, this could be a time for more radical innovation (for UK broadcasters, at least. I’m relatively unaware of what has/n’t been tried elsewhere - but I would love to find out).

So how does such an expensive product end up so bland? I don’t have any personal experience in sports media, so I could be wrong, but my guess is something like this:

The key decision makers, even if they like and follow football, don’t have enough executive control and/or aren’t opinionated enough to make bold choices. Instead, they lean heavily on market research and the like to understand what people want from their coverage. As a result, they end up with a wide array of perceived needs that they feel they have to meet. Some people want to have a debate, others want analysis. Others want something bombastic. So what we get is something like death-by-focus-group.

This would also explain why smaller football programmes have no problem fitting into a specific niche. TalkSport and radio call-in shows might not be for everyone, but they have a clear vision that they try to execute.

I appreciate that football’s popularity makes it hard to meet everyone’s preferences. However, I believe that by having a clear strategy executed well, broadcasters can also work to shape demand. For inspiration, look no further than Michael Cox’s work in the early 2010s, or the rapid expansion of analytics content over the past 3-4 years.

Heck, maybe we don’t even have to choose? As with providing coverage both with and without crowd noise, new forms of media could enable a single broadcaster to target many different types of fan. Sure, that would split the budget, but by increasing focus perhaps you reduce the need for big name stars to paper over the cracks.