In case you hadn’t noticed, the Premier League season kicks off tomorrow, and with it, for a 50th year, returns the original television football programme.
But like many of us as we enter late middle-age, there are increasing signs of infirmity, and even suggestions from old friends that early retirement might not be out of the question.
The BBC’s relationship with televised sport, once all-embracing, is increasingly marginalised and irrelevant, caused by its loss of rights to the satellite companies and a terminal lack of budget. Maybe, too, the 24/7 digital age is hastening the moment when the controller of BBC1 decides the time has come to abandon a highlight packages show, pretending that no one already knows the scores, and the scorers, of games that finished five hours earlier.
The Saturday “Pinks”, the special edition of regional evening papers, have all but disappeared from around the country, out-dated by a range of devices, starting with steam wireless, but now extending through television, to smartphones and tablets. Might MOTD go the same way?
There was a time when Match of the Day, and the ITV Sunday lunchtime version, the Big Match, with their limited selection of a few minutes of highlights from three or four games, was the only football on our telly, apart from the occasional disaster of a live England game from Wembley or the annual jamboree of the FA Cup final itself. Now, there’s near-saturation coverage of football, especially Premier League football, with 154 matches being shown live this season by BSkyB and BTSport.
For anyone who isn’t in a ground on a Saturday afternoon (or Sunday lunchtime or Monday evening, as kick-off times are swapped around for the benefit of the TV schedulers) and is determined enough to see their team play, there’s usually a savvy pub landlord somewhere who has his satellite dish honed in on a Greek or Turkish channel. With the sound turned down, obviously.
And therein lies another problem for MOTD. Because besides just picking up the broadcasting crumbs from the table with its heritage highlights package, Match of the Day no longer offers anything distinctive. If you’ve already seen the game, or games, and found out all the rest of the results from Sky Sports News or online newspapers’ “live” blogs, what is there about the old programme to make even the most committed sports fan switch on? The charisma of Gary Lineker? Think again…
Matthew Norman pin-pointed another of BBC Sport’s problems in his Telegraph column this week when he asked: where have all the great commentators gone?
“The elocuted Geordie elegance of Ken Wolstenholme, Barry Davies’s caustic, sometimes bombastic intelligence, and the infectiously nasal zeal of the early John Motson. Whatever you thought of them, their voices were as instantly recognisable as those of your closest family, and their verbal stylings equally distinct.
“These days, you would have to deploy the CIA’s most sophisticated voice analysis software to distinguish the seven or eight BBC TV commentators.”
It is not just in football that the BBC appears to be losing its great “Voice of …” [fill in name of sport to suit]: John Arlott in cricket; Dan Maskell in tennis; Harry Carpenter in boxing, verbal artists of the microphone who were taught to let the pictures do their talking for them. And when they had something to say, it was worth hearing.
Increasingly, Match of the Day’s future will depend on ratings, and possibly on what fraction of digital rights the BBC can hang on to as they stand on the sidelines watching Sky and BT slug it out in the next round of multi-billion-pound negotiations. But with hundreds of BBC News staff being axed to save money, trophy programmes such as MOTD with their mega-contracts for the likes of Alan Shearer, Phil Neville and Robbie Savage to spout punditry platitudes may be playing into the final few minutes of injury time.
If only they would make greater use of them.
Steve Cram, schooled in the Eurosport booth of day-long stints covering the arcanities of the women’s 50-kilometre hammer-throw, has been joined recently by the non-athlete Andrew Cotter, pictured above, a philosophy graduate who learned his trade covering golf, and thus provides some calm, intelligent wit. Backed up with former javelin world record-holder Steve Backley’s analytical approach to field events (when the director deigns to show any), this trio has done very well this summer, first in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games and now Zurich.
But then the BBC goes and spoils it by indulging surely the most incoherent and inarticulate commentator known to the world in Brendan Foster, or by pretending that Denise Lewis or Colin Jackson really do have anything worth saying.
Much, especially production personnel, has changed since BBC Sport’s forced move to Salford in 2012, and not always for the better. But with their athletics coverage, just as with Match of the Day, the BBC would do well to return to an old guiding principle of less is usually more.