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Stand Up If You Hate Man U – And I Think It Might Be TVs Fault.

As Manchester United are again selected for television coveragein the FA Cup for the 39th game in a row, guest writer Rob Atkinson looks at the media love-in circle which continues to dominate our sporting screens.

 

Rob Atkinson was born in West Yorkshire in 1961, and has lived there all his life. He is married, with one daughter who is currently studying in York for a career in Primary Education. 
Having worked for many years in the voluntary sector as a Welfare Rights adviser and freelance trainer, he has been occupied as a carer for the past few years, working also as an actor, proof-reader and copy editor.

Rob is currently writing a book about the bad and worse times of following his first and most enduring love, Leeds United AFC.
When he is not treading the boards in various theatres around Yorkshire, he is to be found somewhere near his computer station at home – ostensibly working, but more likely reading the work of authors he admires (George MacDonald Fraser, Leslie Thomas et al), and dreaming of publication. 
Rob’s other interests include local and national history, astronomy and cricket. His newly-established blog can be accessed here.

On Saturday 8th January 2005, Manchester United played Exeter City in the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup. It was something of a mismatch on paper, but surprisingly a plucky Exeter team held out for a 0-0 draw, and took the holders to a replay. A significant achievement for the minnows, but this game was noteworthy for another reason; to date it remains the last F.A. Cup tie involving Manchester United not to have been shown live on TV.

Even on the face of it, this is a remarkable statistic. Particularly in the earlier rounds, there are many matches from which TV companies can take their pick, and traditionally the perceived likelihood of an upset is a big draw. Given the perennial dominance of Manchester United, it’s usually difficult to see much chance of a giant-killing, and the interest in games involving them, you might think, will be mainly for those occasions when they’re drawn against a Chelsea, or a Liverpool, or maybe even a Manchester City or an Arsenal.

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Looking at the list of games included in this amazing run of uninterrupted TV spotlight, some of them really do make you wonder what the companies concerned hoped to achieve, with the chances of an embarrassingly one-sided contest surely outweighing by far any prospect of a surprise. It begs the question of whether broadcasters are putting too high a priority on audience over entertainment value. There may be a certain piquant charm in seeing the likes of Burton Albion gazing wide-eyed at the immensity of Old Trafford, but some of the ties televised have lacked even this saving grace. Middlesbrough or Reading at home? Hardly sets the pulse racing, does it?

Any hint of complaint about Manchester United will, naturally, bring anguished howls of protest from the direction of London and Devon, as hard-core Reds, some of whom may even have visited Old Trafford, loudly complain about this latest manifestation of “jealousy”. It’s become rather a knee-jerk reaction, but there’s really not a lot of foundation for it. Anyone truly motivated by envy (jealousy means something different, chaps, look it up) has a simple solution at hand – simply jump aboard the bandwagon. The prevalence of the Old Trafford club on our TV screens will certainly garner them increased “support” from those who just want to be identified with such a vulgar example of a club gorging on success. It is the more negative effect of blanket coverage that should be worrying, not so much for Manchester United, but for the sport itself.

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For there is a danger here that the media have not only created a monster, but that they are actively encouraging that monster to eclipse all their rivals. The basis of any sport must be healthy competition, but there is disquieting evidence that the playing field has not been level for a long time now. It doesn’t take too much digging to unearth some unsettling trends. One study over a number of matches suggested that 88% of all marginal decisions went the way of Manchester United, and there was also a distinct lack of penalties awarded against them in league games at Old Trafford over a period of years. There have also been instances of referees who have displeased Alex Ferguson mysteriously disappearing for months from their fixtures. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at professional level, evidence that one club enjoys preferential treatment is a matter of concern. Such a trend, given the amount of money flowing into the game, could easily lead that one club into an unhealthy dominance, to the detriment, ultimately, of the spectacle as a whole. Fierce competition is so crucial to any healthy sport, that the importance of this principle is difficult to overstate.

Success, they say, is all about the steady accumulation of marginal gains.  Manchester United as an institution appears fully to appreciate this, as any club should. But these days, the media are the game’s paymasters, particularly the TV companies – and when they start favouring one club above all others, then you have to fear for the ability of others to compete in the long term. It’s a matter of concern – and it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more coverage (of an almost exclusively favourable nature) promotes more support ever further afield for “United” as the media love to call them.   And the more support they gain, the more of a market there is which will feed on their success, so the more commercially desirable their success will become – and commercial pressure speaks volumes when knife-edge decisions are to be made.

It would be difficult to imagine that any other club should have such a long, unbroken run of live TV coverage in their F.A. Cup ties. Last Saturday, in the 4th round of this year’s competition, they figured in their 38th consecutive such event. The home game against Fulham followed its predictable, boring script – early penalty, spineless opposition, comfortable home win. Meanwhile, Brighton faced Arsenal, in what was, equally predictably, a much more exciting contest, two sides playing good football, and the prospect of a shock never far away.  But this tie was not seen live.  In the 5th round, Man U will face Reading at home, which will probably, let’s face it, be another Fulham-esque stroll.  And you can bet your mortgage it’ll be live on the box again, although there are murmurings of discontent now, from some sections of the press.

As a Leeds United supporter, I’ve had cause to bless the tendency of TV companies to cover even the games where “United” seem certain to roll over the opposition. On January 3rd 2010, Leeds, then of the third tier, triumphed at Old Trafford before a live ITV audience, sending the Champions spinning out of the Cup at the earliest possible stage. But satisfactory as this was, it’s the exception, not the rule – normally the colossus will trample the underdogs, and their millions of fans worldwide will be happy. But what about the rest of us? Are we to continue paying our satellite subscriptions, and buying our match tickets, for the privilege of watching Man U clean up as the stakes become higher, and the odds become ever more skewed in their favour?

At some point, worms will start turning and – at the risk of mixing metaphors – maybe the bubble will finally burst. Then, chill winds of reality will blast through the offices of the TV moguls. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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11 thoughts on “Stand Up If You Hate Man U – And I Think It Might Be TVs Fault.

  1. Do I detect a touch of paranoia here, or is it just another Daily Mail reader failing to tell the whole truth, of the games you mention, United were the in fact the away team in 16 games, in the case of Burton, the majority of giant killing happens on the smaller clubs home turf.
    Other games in which they featured were four semi-finals, (both semis are screened), and two were finals, who else are they going to screen on Cup final day ?

    Then you forget to mention that other ties have been screened live on Sky over Super Sundays, and Saturdays, last weekend there was wall to wall FA Cup coverage from 12:30 on both days.

    Please do a little more research before you spin a Daily Mail article as if it were your own, even Leeds fans have more intelligence than a Mail hack.

  2. It’s not a matter of possible upsets, thrilling tie or whatever. It’s about viewership. The more people are watching, the more they make from advertising. 40% of EPL viewers are Man Utd supporters. It’s all business. If you wanna do better, start winning championships. If you are in charge of the TV companies, you’d do exactly the same, trust me. And if you didn’t you wouldn’t get the job anyway. But that’s a foregone conclusion because anyone dumb enough to write this crap won’t be working for any media company anyway.

    • I actually think you’re correct in your reasoning, but this doesn’t make such a policy right, and a run of 38, 39, 40 and so on consecutive appearances – that’s just taking the mick. TV has a duty to entertain as well as maximise commercial potential – licences are granted with this explicit proviso. Some of the Man U home times have been turgid, dull, boring exercises in futility. The next one – Reading at home – promises more of the same.

  3. Paranoia? If the cap fits…

    We’re now talking 38 CONSECUTIVE ties screened featuring the Mighty Man U. I’m not disputing the suitability of all of those, but to have such an incredibly extended run (show me another club where this has happened) – there are going to be a few duds in there. Fulham last Saturday was certainly one – I said beforehand that Brighton v Arsenal would have been a much better choice, and I was right.

    The run dating back to 2005 also includes routine ties at home to Reading and Middlesbrough. Burton at home? What’s the point? I’ll concede that showing the home tie against third division Leeds United was a good move 😉 But the already selected 5th round tie against Reading is likely further to detract from the tradition of picking the ties most likely to give the viewer a chance of seeing something unusual.

    The TV companies are just trying to grab large audiences by seducing the armchair army of Man U fans across Cornwall, Devon and other such hotbeds of gloryhunting support. You know it. I know it. Why make a fuss when it’s pointed out?

  4. Fantastic article and spot on. It’s a shame some mainstream Man Utd corporate machine ! Feeding the glory hunters their weekly diet of football and stopping them ever attending a proper game !

  5. ARAGORN – well-said my friend.

    “As a Leeds United supporter” … therein ends any credibility this article may have had.

  6. Good fair article, interesting if expected to see the Man U supporters comments. The article I believe is about choice and evenhandedness, after all if its just Man U one day we’ll find there is no one left to play -all clubs are reliant on each other as is the nature of the competition. I’d add my own complaint andy Townsend et al saying united when man u are playing. other uniteds (eg the west ham tie). It’s just disrespectful to the majority of football supporters, media types too far removed from the loves of real fans to remember simple curtesy, slack journalism and toadyism.

  7. Superb mate. You’re an oasis of reality in a desert of vomit. Great article,just been reading waccoe for transfer news and you put all their inane ramblings to shame. Nice one.

  8. Good article. Don’t be upsetting the ‘hardcore’ fans glued to their armchairs spouting their allegiance for a team that is more than likely geographically remote from them. I seriously have never met a fan of this team that as been to OT – but read this article and you will know that they don’t need to – Glory Hunting by proxy.

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