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Old 10th March 2009, 10:51   #1
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Default FA left to lament the great Cup turn-off

FA left to lament the great Cup turn-off

Matt Dickinson, Chief Sports Correspondent The Times
March 10, 2009

If only we could all choose as our legacy the one stupendous day when everything we touched turned to gold rather than the dozens spent kicking the desk in frustration, as, recently, did Brian Barwick, the former FA chief executive.

In an interview, Barwick talked of his pride in the appointment of Fabio Capello as England manager, as if recruiting one of the world’s outstanding managers was not only a tough call but the only decision that mattered. Sorry, Brian, but, as Tony Blair would testify, you do not get to choose your legacy.

Even putting aside the appointment of Steve McClaren and the failure to qualify for Euro 2008, a hangover from Barwick’s time remains the ITV/Setanta deal. It is a contract that goes from bad to worse to truly awful, looking at the viewing figures for the FA Cup, which continue to decrease quicker than the value of your house.

Audiences have dropped by a third all season, a trend continued in the sixth round at the weekend when the average for ITV/Setanta was 2.9 million, down from last season’s 4.2 million on BBC/Sky — and certain to drop considerably farther given that Arsenal against Hull City next Tuesday is live on Setanta, which will probably attract a maximum of 750,000.

This dramatic reduction is not only because Setanta penetrates far fewer living-rooms than Sky. ITV is consistently pulling notably fewer viewers than the Beeb did during its tenure. Compare the two terrestrial broadcasters from last season to this and we see a drop-off in the average live figures from the BBC’s 6.2 million to ITV’s 4.4 million in the third round, 4.5 million to 4.1 million in the fourth, 4.6 million to 4 million in the fifth and, this weekend, a fall-away from 5.1 million to 4.1 million. You do not need a PhD in statistics to spot the trend.

As Barwick will have known, being a former television executive, the BBC has the advantage of a huge platform, a variety of outlets and massive marketing clout — all resources that it deployed to put a shine on the FA Cup.

There was a time when you could not move for Cup adverts on Radio 5 Live, BBC Television and on billboards. Cup weekends once again became an event. The old trophy enjoyed a bit of fresh polish and figures that had been in decline showed marked improvement. The FA and BBC patted each other on the back.

“The FA Cup is much more valuable than it was three years ago,” Michael Grade, the ITV chairman, said when his company outbid the BBC in 2007. The shame is that it will not leave it as it found it, but Barwick should have known that when he shook hands with Grade. At the time, the £425 million deal with ITV/Setanta was hailed as a 42 per cent boost in revenues, but the FA’s broadcast partners now consist of an organisation that is shedding 600 jobs in ITV and, in Setanta, a company that is in such difficulty that it is seeking to renegotiate its payment structure.

Perhaps the governing body could not predict those difficulties, but it was always taking a risk with one of its main assets, the FA Cup, when it dumped BBC and Sky — in which News Corporation, parent company of The Times, has a 39.1 per cent stake — and swapped horses.

This was a competition that desperately needed high-class exposure to thrive in a cluttered market, to escape from the shadow of the Champions League. The Beeb was providing precisely that. ITV’s coverage so far has included cutting away from a winning goal to show an advertisement for tic tacs and a preview show being canned for technical tests. It is as well for the competition that there could be two fantastic semi-finals, and perhaps Manchester United concluding a quadruple, otherwise the flow of bad news could be relentless until May.

Barwick would argue that he made a commercial decision for the good of the wider game, going for the highest bidder so that more revenue could be passed on to the grass roots. But as the ad tells us, there are some things that money can’t buy. There are some things that need diligent care and protection.

Top of the list, if you are heading up the governing body, is the FA Cup’s unique heritage.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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