It is hard to associate the Premier League with anything other than immense wealth, wonderful modern stadia, top class foreign players and managers showcased daily by the glitz and glamour of Sky Sports.
However, football fans old enough to recall the breakaway and birth of the Premier League will tell you a rather different image of the game was conjured up, one born out of decades of decline, violence and terrible tragedy.
Put simply, the sport had a dire PR problem. Football was associated with rampant hooliganism, declining facilities and a crumbling infrastructure overseen by archaic head honchos of the football league. Decrepit Victorian terraces contributed to three awful disasters in the 1980s which claimed the lives 191 football fans. The Bradford Fire, Heysel Stadium disaster and the appalling crush at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 forced the hand of central government and the Taylor report was commissioned to try and bring some order to the chaos gripping the game.
The most well-known finding was the recommendation to convert the old terraces to all-seating facilities in an aide to combat mobile hooliganism and keep fans safe. However, one of the footnotes of the report was also an urging of the game’s top brass to “move upmarket” and to target the “affluent middle class in his or her pursuits and aspirations.” Sound familiar?
As an undercurrent to all of this, there was a growing sense of frustration from the leading figures at some of English football’s biggest clubs, at the distribution of wealth throughout the league.
Having initially tried to secure a more lucrative break away TV rights deal in 1988 with ITV’s Greg Dyke; representatives at Liverpool, Manchester United, Spurs, Arsenal and Everton were ready to try again in 1991 as they met with the FA to discuss a seismic shakeup of the game.
Despite legal proceedings by the football league to counter what they rightly saw as an irreversible transfer of power; by April 1991 the newly named Premier League was in it’s advanced stages as more and more top-flight clubs bought into the idea of governing their own financial destinies.
After months of posturing, it was time to get the money men through the door and choose a TV partner for this new league.
To be precise, it was the doors of the ever-so swanky Royal Lancaster Hotel that these money men stomped through and changed the course of English football forever.
Then Spurs chairman Alan Sugar, he was not a Lord nor a knight back in May 1992, is credited with the now infamous amateur dramatics of the day. Having heard that ITV had ignored a deadline for bids and stormed in with lucrative £262 million offer, the Cockney businessman could be heard booming down the phone to Sky Chief Executive Sam Chisolm: “get your f****** arse round here and blow them out of the water.”
As often is the case, the reality is a lot less dramatic. Future Liverpool Chief Executive Rick Parry who had been brought on board to help get the Premier League off the ground, knew Sky were more than a tad interested. Parry also got on the phone to Chisolm that day. The next phone call went straight to the big man himself. Rupert Murdoch was roused from his sleep in a New York hotel and presumably, quite grumpily authorized his man in London to gazump the competition.
Thus the first Premier League TV rights deal was born and much to the fury of Dyke and ITV, it was sky who won the day with a £306 million deal.
In an age of shiny TV studios, fancy graphics depicting Raheem Sterling’s heat map and heavyweight, high-pitched quarrelling pundits, it is hard to envisage a time without Sky sports influence in the game we all love. But had it not been for those hotel lobby phone calls, Murdoch’s struggling enterprise may have folded.
Laden with crippling debts, Sky’s management team had flirted with pay per view pornography in the late eighties as they looked to avert financial disaster in the UK market. Their ruthless acquisition of the Premier League’s TV rights may have saved their skin, but it is undoubtedly the corner stone in the league’s relentless success story.
Tellingly Rick Parry observed the lasting influence of the league’s ambitious new partner: “Look at the energy they’ve put into growing the game and promoting it. Sam Chisholm memorably said it was the greatest corporate romance of all time.”
As recently as 1989, the BBC and ITV had aired just 35 live games between them in a calendar year. Sky would air 60 live matches for the 1992/93 season as well as selling highlights to the BBC for Match of the Day. All of a sudden, fans could enjoy Super Sundays, Monday Night Football and improved punditry as the bonanza commenced.
By 1997 the rights package deal had swollen to £670 million. Stadiums were starting to modernize, exotic foreign star players were no longer just an elusive right of the big clubs and fans lapped up the entertainment with a seemingly insatiable appetite.
Some point to the game’s decaying soul in the midst as the coffers continued to swell and bulge at the seams. And it is hard not to sympathise with such a view. The Premier League’s birth collided with the all conquering force of nineties capitalism. With such ambition coupled with an obvious need to modernize there is a sense that much has been lost as TV money made the rich clubs ever wealthier and more dominant.
However, the Premier League’s rise to become a global fiscal institution enjoyed in more than 200 nations would likely never have seen the light of day without Sky’s desire to fatten their newly purchased cash cow and expose the sport worldwide.
As football emerged from two decades of decline, blinking into the dazzling bright lights in that heady late summer of 1992 it truly was, as Sky’s marketing gurus famously quipped, a whole new ball game.