Just before Halloween, The Italian Cup match between Juventus and Udinese attracted just 481 spectators. In the previous round against Ravenna, the Turin side, who only two years ago were European Champions, drew a paltry 583 fans to their match. At the Maracana Stadium in Brazil, the Copa Mercosur - the South American Superleague - was launched this season and a couple of months ago, Brazil’s best supported side, Flamengo, faced top Argentinian team, Boca Juniors, in front of a crowd of just 791. And that was in a stadium which has held more than 200,000 in it’s time. In England, the televised games in the Worthington Cup (including our tie at Anfield) have shown stands more than half empty and even the live European matches, featuring the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers, have been notable for the large open swathes of seating visible to the cameras sweep.

The prospect of television coverage reaching a stage of overkill may soon be approaching. I like to watch football on TV as much as anything else, but the dull games featured (many of them having little importance) results in me not bothering to tune in to them all. With the prospect of digital TV providing clubs with their own channels or giving the viewer the choice of watching matches on a split screen, the supply of football will become a torrent. But, is the demand there to justify it? For every important game, there are probably two or three that just aren’t worth bothering to put on screen. Alex Fynn (of Saatchi and Saatchi and author of many books on football and THFC) once propounded the theory of matches only interesting fans if the game became "an event". This meant that the match actually had to have some meaning. In these days, the Worthington Cup may sadly be falling into the category of a non-event, as some managers field under-strength teams and the fans save their money for games of greater importance. Ken Bates, like him or loath him, has said that the European cup competitions have too many sides from the breakaway nations and without a pre-qualifying "filter", too many matches take place in the early rounds involving little more than a chance for clubs to rack up their record scores.

The cost of attending a game has now escalated to such a degree that the people at the top had better heed the words of Fynn. Fans are gradually being priced out of the stadium and may have to rely on TV coverage, but will football be the same played out in front of half empty stands with as much atmosphere as a reserve team game played at Wembley? When will the TV companies lose interest in football and move on to another sport, leaving the clubs to pick up whatever of their game is left? It’s only the thin end of the wedge and all those matches played at the whim of Sky, Carlton, Channel 5 and the BBC, may disappear as quickly as they flashed onto our screens.

Will there be a European Superleague? If there is then, what will be left behind? The best of the rest and a few traditionally well supported clubs who will be thrown together into a League which will provide the rough and tumble of English football. This league will become part of the feeder system for the teams who are lucky enough to get a ride on the Euro gravy train, but what happens when it arrives at their station and they have to get off. Will they come crawling back to England with their tail between their legs and ask "Can we play please, Mister?" Or will it be a comfy alliance where relegation is a thing for the losers who are stuck in the domestic leagues? With so many "European" countries taking part in the UEFA competitions, how will the powers that be decide who gets included in the Superleague? It will most probably be those with the greatest televisual pulling power, but when Arsenal play in Kiev, will the stadium be full? No. And how far will fans actually travel, on a regular basis, to see their side play? There will always be the hardcore of fans who will go anywhere to see their team, but when prices in this small country are becoming exorbitant, then the cost of travelling involved in keeping up with the club’s Superleague campaign will be astronomical. This is where the TV companies come in. With travelling prohibitive because of the cost and time involved, they provide the matches that are out of reach in the comfort of your front room. However, they are unlikely to want to do this for free, so pay per view may raise it’s ugly head. And because the amount of money you would have spent flying to Italy is quite sizeable, then the price of watching the match on the box can be fixed at a higher rate than would be expected for a domestic match.

So, make the most of it while you can. The subscription to Sky Sports is only the start and Digital will prove to be even more expensive than the 200 you have to pay for the set-top box. For all the football that is on television, my mind still harks back to the days when you only got the highlights of Saturday’s matches on "Match of the Day" and "The Big Match". Featuring games from all the Divisions, it was an event to see snippets of games from the Goldstone Ground or Priestfield, action from Gay Meadow and Dean Court. Now, it is only the Premiership and the top Nationwide clubs that get the coverage and those at the bottom end of the league ladder are restricted to goals round-ups and a late, late night spot (that never has the same time slot twice) on ITV. Come the Superleague, don’t expect to see the likes of Macclesfield, Barnet and Lincoln at all - if they still exist of course. Unless some charitable soul takes them under their wing and provides the club with their own digital channel, that is !!

TV has made watching football too easy. Make it hard to get access to and the crowds will swell again. Make it too expensive and the people will either come to the grounds or lose interest entirely. For many, the television is the only way to follow their team at the moment, so what will happen come the digital revolution? They will be the first who will be unable to see the game up against their wall. For the next generation, their knowledge of football may be from a glowing box in the corner of the room and a bank balance that shows them the price of supporting your team. The future is bleak whichever way you look at it.

Tom Maskell

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