Sky forks out a fortune for football – but not as we know it

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Cardboard cutouts in stadiums…but they can’t shout or sing.

Sunday sports news and views

by our sports correspondent

ANYONE with a Sky subscription who’s not content to sit back in the armchair in front of the gogglebox and ignore the way those monthly charges always seem to steadily incease – how a £50-60 bill mysteriously rises to a £70-80 one or higher – knows exactly what do.

Phone them, navigate your way through the complexities of finally speaking to a human being, and tell them you’re not happy with the amount now being charged. Say you intend to dump Sky altogether and move to another provider.

Within minutes they’ll come back with an alternative arrangement which involves special deals, cut prices and maybe a loyalty bonus and will agree to knock £20-30 or maybe more off. So you end up paying less and losing out on nothing. If you don’t do it too often, it works every time.

How Sky must now be wishing they could apply the same technique in their own favour. In 2018 they signed a £160million five-year deal to broadcast Scottish Premiership football. It begins at the start of the new season.

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Hamilton Accies behind closed doors could be a tough watch.

Potentially the most languid, flat, and least watched season in the history of Scottish football.

In a fair world – but who wants to be fair to the moguls at Sky – they’d be able to re-negotiate a knockdown price for an inferior product, applying the same “we’re not happy” tactics as described above.

But that’s not how it works. They’re locked into the deal and have to pay up.

To broadcast a season of matches which may all be played behind closed doors.

No fans, no atmosphere, players affected by their surreal surroundings and some games potentially looking barely more energetic than a practice match.

It’s not much of a turn-on – in fact it could be a switch-off of massive proportions.

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Bundesliga passion on the pitch, but it’s still been a turn-off for many.

When the Bundesliga league began behind closed doors a month ago the return of live football – any form of live football – was eagerly anticipated here. But the mass online consensus was it just didn’t work as a TV spectacle. Many fans tried to stoke themselves up as they watched, but their interest began to fade by the minute. It just wasn’t the real thing. The old adage “fans make football” has never been more relevant.

How many people will tune in regularly to Scottish football behind closed doors? That’s the great unknown. But audience prospects are not promising.

Aberdeen v Hibs, Dundee United v Motherwell, or heaven help us, St Johnstone v Ross County or Hamilton v Livingston: while some games may pull in a bigger audience than others the viewing figures for some of these closed doors encounters could be so small that they’ll fall off the audience rating radar. And it’s not enough to say that attendances at some Scottish matches are small anyway. There’s a big difference between having some fans and having no fans.

It’s not even guaranteed that dedicated supporters  will tune in regularly to watch their own teams, never mind anyone else’s.

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And what about the Big One? Rangers v Celtic, Celtic v Rangers, behind closed doors? The passion, fury and vitriol pouring down from 50,000 fans replaced by near silence. Again, we’ll have to see how that works as an absorbing sporting spectacle, but it’ll be far removed from being the real deal, that is a certainty.

Clubs, managers, players, the media, all will do their best to assist Sky in hyping up these matches. And Sky are very good at the promotional “Super Sunday” razzamatazz. But these skills face the ultimate test.

On the continent broadcasters have piped in match noise, put cardboard cut-outs of fans in the stands, and in South Korea they even filled a section of one stadium with plastic figurines which ended up being branded sex dolls. The sex dolls attracted a lot more attention than the football.

A limited number of socially-distanced fans may be allowed into Scottish stadiums sometime in the months ahead. Even a thinly-spread smattering would be a lot better than no-one at all.

But it’s Sky’s supreme misfortune that they’re going to have to pay through the nose for broadcasting behind closed-doors football. And it’s the Scottish Premiership’s best-break ever that they’ve signed a deal to do so.

If that £160million contract was being negotiated now Sky would feel confident of getting an agreement if they offered a tiny fraction of it. Or they might not even bother to negotiate it at all.

Are fans looking forward to the launch of a behind closed doors season? The sports pages of newspapers will tell you they are – journalists are dependent for their jobs in trying to convince readers they are – but those viewing figures will provide the only realistic assessment around.

It’ll all change when we eventually get back to the real thing.

But for now, Sky and clubs will just have to accept that it is what it is. And there’s no getting round the fact that when it comes to the behind closed doors scenario, “what it is” looks pretty dire.

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