Game Changers: How Sky Sports Brought Us A Whole New Ball Game In 1992

A £191million deal shaped English football for the next three decades
10:31, 14 Aug 2019

In the 1980s and early 1990s football was a sport that people were often reluctant to admit they actually liked in public, but then the Premier League came along in 1992 and everything changed.

Of course, football had existed before the arrival of the Premier League but it was almost unrecognisable from what most of us are now used to. The game was on its knees, with matches being played in decrepit stadiums against the constant backdrop of hooliganism, with tragedies at Hillsborough, Hysel and Bradford still fresh in the memory.

Meanwhile. a ban on English clubs playing in Europe prevented our finest clubs competing with the best on the continent, meaning sides like Everton’s superb 1985 League winners and Liverpool’s class of 1987 were denied the chance to pit their wits against the elite from overseas.

Then there was the fact that very few games were actually broadcast live on television as bickering between clubs and broadcasters often starved armchair viewers of seeing the game they loved while constant images of violence and hooliganism led many to turn off altogether. 

The final season of the old Football League Division One had been a thriller as Manchester United battled with Leeds for the title, a tussle which went to the wire in one of the most exciting climaxes you could wish to see – except not many people did see it with ITV’s The Match broadcasting just a handful of league games compared to the 160 or so shown today.

But those running the game were well aware that there was still an appetite for football among many armchair fans who had perhaps decided against going to football in recent seasons, something which was highlighted by the popularity of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

So when the chairmen of the so-called ‘big five’ clubs - Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham - decided to form a breakaway top-flight, which would allow them to distribute the wealth amongst themselves, rather than the entire 92 professional clubs, an almost unheard of broadcaster saw their big chance to become a genuine game-changer.

Satellite channel BskyB were losing an estimated £10 million a week back then, mostly due to the fact that hardly anybody was prepared to purchase their expensive boxes while the programmes they offered were of little interest to many; but they were prepared to take a punt which would ultimately revive their fortunes while making them one of the biggest media players in the world.

After much haggling and horse-trading, BSkyB narrowly beat ITV in the battle to exclusively show live domestic football for £191million by just one vote - perhaps thanks to the fact that the Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Alan Sugar, also owned Amstrad, the company that built the satellite dishes which would quickly become the hottest property for any football fan that could afford them.

Although not great news for the majority of viewers with domestic league football on terrestrial TV soon to be a thing of the past, it was a perfect arrangement for the clubs at a time when many were wondering how they could ever afford the huge stadium improvements recommended by the Taylor Report which followed the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.

As well as live Sunday afternoon games each week, Sky also introduced Monday Night Football making it a weekend-long experience while programmes like The Boot Room, Hold the Back Page and The Footballer’s Football Show gave a newer audience the opportunity to get closer to players than ever before – assuming they were prepared to pay.

The inaugural Premier League season kicked off on August 15, 1992 with Sheffield United’s Brian Deane heading the first goal of this brave new era against Manchester United at Bramall Lane. The Blades would eventually win the game 2-1 but their opponents would have the last laugh, going on to lift the first-ever Premier League trophy that May.

Other than the introduction of the back pass rule the new season offered little change for those who knew no different. Apart from a few more garish kit designs the players were the same, the stadiums were similar and there were 27 goals scored and plenty of talking points - no different from any other season opener really.

The real difference with this “whole new ball game,” as Sky christened it, would become evident in the years to come with huge transfer fees being paid for top players and the influx of foreign stars into the game like never before.

The truth is, clubs are more than happy to tap into the steady stream of interest that now comes from all over the world thanks to huge international TV and marketing deals with their brands being broadcast around the world to millions of fans who are more than willing to pay for the privilege.

Of course the Premier League is not without its critics with the clubs and the broadcasters often being blamed for working-class fans, who were once the lifeblood of the game, being priced out of the sport while games being moved to suit the television schedules often plays havoc with the arrangement of match-going supporters.

Our domestic league today has very little to do with English football. Clubs have foreign investors, teams are made-up of foreign players and more often than not, managed by foreign coaches - when Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds pipped Manchester United to the title in 1992 he became the last English manager since the incarnation of the Premier League.

But despite the negativity the fact remains that crowds have continued to rise since the launch of the Premier League with the average top-flight attendance today considerably higher than the season of its introduction back in 1992 while the live games we have become used to on Sunday afternoons, Monday nights and now Friday evenings have become an integral part of any football fan’s weekend.

In the years since the introduction of the Premier League commentators and journalists have often predicted that the football bubble will soon burst, claiming that such elaborate spending can’t go on forever, that the TV money can’t keep going up and that the broadcasting deal will come to an end sooner rather than later and all have been proven wrong time-and-time-again – for now at least.

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