That English football sold its soul to television many years ago is hardly a contentious subject any more. And partly because the small screen has enabled to us to consume and enjoy more of the game from across the globe than we could ever have imagined possible. But with football and TV ever more reliant on each other, is there really a need for football to have humiliated itself for television in the way it did for the FA Cup semi-finals? One semi was played simultaneously with a huge Premier League match, the other managed to clash with two EPL matches. The Premier League rights holders (in this case Sky) didn’t need to care.
Let us remind ourselves what the FA Cup actually is, because there are some who are willing to ignore, disregard and disrespect its place in the football world.
The FA Cup is 145 years old. It can seriously be regarded as the greatest competition in domestic world sport, and not because of its age and history, which is considerable.
No, it’s the format and the inclusion.
Over seven hundred teams compete. The smallest start in August in front of sparse crowds but dreaming of unprecedented progress and a big draw. By May, after a journey that is always eventful, often memorable, two of the leading professional clubs in the country are left to battle it out in front of 90,000 at the national stadium at Wembley. An event still special, though at one time an occasion where the nation (and many other nations) stopped to watch. There was a time it was the Super Bowl of football. Really.
The English football fan is sometimes maligned, but is special too. Tell me where else on this planet thousands upon thousands of fans travel to watch their team away from home, criss-crossing the island like ants to watch matches through four league divisions. And in many non-league divisions too.
The FA Cup is the chance to dare to dream and this season the dream came true for third tier Bradford City. Coming from two down to beat champions-elect Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is arguably the biggest FA Cup shock of all time.
The coverage on national broadcaster the BBC (as well as BT Sport) has been extensive, bright and immensely respectful, injecting much needed passion into a competition that has gone through hard times for two decades. Partly through the rise of the Premier and Champions leagues, partly because managers stopped picking their best teams, partly affordability for fans, but also a sensitive reason.
The Hillsborough tragedy affects many people in many ways. For me it’s as a human being, as a Liverpool fan who had friends and family at the ground, and as a journalist who has covered the fight for justice and made programmes on the families’ plight. So it was right and proper semi-finals started to be played at Wembley for safety reasons. But football has now changed.
The moment the teams emerge at Wembley for the semi-finals every season is the moment the tournament loses it for me. The road to Wembley, a magical part of my childhood, has become ‘win a home quarter-final final and you’ve made it’. Whatever happened to the final being the be all and end all?
But, there is no reason for television companies and the Football Association to make things worse.
The clash between the Arsenal/Reading semi-final at Wembley and Chelsea v Manchester United was immensely damaging for the FA Cup and English football as a whole. What on earth should the worldwide audience who wanted to watch both have made of this? What about the UK audience? What about…the fans? Remember them?
Has there even been a better example that football and TV bosses caring about fans is a thin façade? They don’t care. Like most things at the top level of football in 2015 it is all about money.
Football fans, whether in stadiums, homes or on the move, will continue to be treated like fodder. Like ants. But football needs them. The Premier League is starting to wake up to the danger that inflated ticket prices can lead to less fans and less atmosphere in matches beamed around the globe.
A word of warning to Football and TV sport bosses. You need each other as much as you need viewers and fans. Take too many liberties with each other and your precious business might be badly affected. Because while people will always want to watch football, and always want to watch it on TV… they might not want to watch as much and they might not want to watch it with your broadcaster.
Cut down what people watch live by arrogantly scheduling head to head…and people might just realise they can do without one of the games. Not good business, is it gentlemen?
Finally for what it’s worth, my solution to the FA Cup’s problems would be:
Semi-finals at the Emirates (Arsenal) and Old Trafford (Manchester), both safe and over 70,000 capacities.
A Champions League place for the winners.
Proper kick-off times and no TV clashes.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport