One evening a year or so back I was phoned by a Sky (pay) TV employee doing a telephone survey on the viewing habits of their New Zealand audience. I was asked if I could spare fifteen minutes to provide some feedback to assist them to improve their service. “Great”, I thought. At last, here was my chance to point out the folly of their dearth of football coverage and how they could rectify their misguided oversight. The first question required me to rate on a scale of one to five (five being very much, one being not at all) how much I enjoy watching rugby. I answered perhaps a little harshly “one”. The lady conducting the survey then said “thank you for your time, sir, you are not in our target demographic”. Before I could splutter my astonishment, she had hung up.
Such is the life of a football fan in a rugby mad country.
What’s the difference between the lunar landing and New Zealand football fans? Some people think the lunar landing really happened. It’s not that we are beneath contempt, it’s that our very existence is denied. We have petitioned, written letters, phoned talkback and whined in online forums but the response from Sky is always the same. “New Zealand football supporters are a small but vocal minority. As our ratings show time and time again, this support does not translate into viewers.” Translation: “Shut up and be grateful we show any of your pathetic little sport at all”.
Telling other Kiwis that football is the most played game in New Zealand, thanks to the high number of kiddies whose mummies and daddies don’t want little Johnny or Josie getting bloodied up on the rugby pitch, is a waste of breath. As is pointing out that the beautiful game is played by more people and countries than most other sports combined. The game is popular, it’s true. But the reply you get is “so were the Spice Girls but that doesn’t make them good”. Fair enough.
The reality is, Sky have us cornered. Football fans are loyal to their clubs and their game. We are never going to cut off our nose to spite our face by cancelling Sky, and Sky know it. We get five or six English Premier League games per week and every Australian A-League game in high definition. We get the Champions League and Spanish La Liga on ESPN – a much poorer quality picture but at least it’s there. It’s not every game we would like. Unless you follow the big four in England you might be lucky to see your favourite club once a month. We get no FA Cup. There has been no Serie A since ESPN lost the rights to Setanta/Fox Sports (who also have the rights to Dutch, Russian, Scottish and German football amongst others but can only be viewed in Australia) at the end of last season. But we get just enough table scraps to deter us from being tempted to strand ourselves at the mercy of the grainy, intermittent internet live streams that New Zealand broadband provides.
Trouble is, technology is moving on and we will soon have more options. One day, we will be able to watch whatever we want, from the Champions League Final to the Fijian Cup Final, live in HD on a pay per view basis through our phone lines with no need for a subscription to Sky. Or, we will be able to subscribe to our favourite club’s channel online so we can stream all their games every week from anywhere in the world. This day is not coming fast enough but it is coming. When it does, I for one will remember the treatment we are getting from Sky right now.
It has to be recognised that we are a minority in this country. We don’t want or need to be subsidised by those who think ‘soccer’ is a sissy game. So here are a couple of thoughts on what Sky could do to not only get themselves back into our good books, but perhaps even make some more money off us while they are at it.
1. Start a dedicated subscriber football channel. We would pay for it. I’ll even wager that more people would subscribe to it than currently pay for the Rugby Channel. Partner up with Setanta and show some of the leagues, like Italy, that nobody else in New Zealand is allowed to carry. They could even throw all the EPL that they complain nobody watches onto it. Then, and only then, will we get an accurate read on how football rates in this country. Because nobody I know has a ‘people meter’ and the one time somebody started to ask me what I watch… see above.
2. If 1. Is unsuitable… We could get access to Setanta in good old NZ with a little help from a satellite dish and a decoder. Except Sky won’t let them unscramble their signal. Why? You guessed it, %^$#ing rugby! Setanta shows some Six Nations rugby matches which Sky has the rights to in New Zealand albeit only on their special Rugby Channel that nobody forks out the extra $10/month for anyway. Sky, please, in the nicest possible way cobbers, GET AN EFFING LIFE!
We are currently in a sort of limbo land between the golden age of television and conventionally broadcast channels being replaced by on-demand web based content available when and where we want it. Sky, like every other TV network needs to adapt fast or die. But how long will we have to wait? Five years? Ten years? In the meantime watching sport is still unfortunately stuck in the realm of rule by the mob. If you follow a minority sport – and this is probably equally true of a Rugby lover in Italy, following your passion is still prohibitively difficult.
I believe that the ability to watch live sport should be a right, not a privilege. When people are able to access the sport they love, they are more likely to be inspired to get off the couch and try to emulate their heroes, leading to a fitter and healthier society less dependent on public health. This leads to lower taxes, fewer wars, more sunny days, more apple pie for desert and… What’s that you say? Too much? Ok, I’ll stop now. Just somebody please for the love of all that’s sane and holy put Roma on my TV once a week, ok?
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma.