The special relationship: how football and the media have grown together

  • New book studies a history of mutually beneficial co-existence
  • What football owes to Sky and Sky owes to football
  • How one of game's great traditions came about to suit the press
  • Why women's game should feel let down by football and the media

As Sky were committing themselves to paying £4.2 billion as their share of the latest record-breaking deal to show the Premier League, for every armchair football fan relishing the prospect of even more world-class players flooding to these shores for their entertainment, there were others wondering how much more perversion of the game's traditions might result from television's ever-tightening grip.
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Yet, as Roger Domeneghetti reveals in his fascinating new book, From the Back Page to the Front Room, football has been bowing to the wishes of the media since the century before last.

Take the 3pm Saturday afternoon kick-off, possibly the most cherished of all the traditions, the tinkering with which has been the subject of endless gripes since the first satellite dish appeared on a south-facing UK wall in 1989.

That tradition, believe it or not, began at the behest of the media, when evening newspaper editors in the 1880s lobbied for a uniform 3pm kick-off time to aid the production of their booming Saturday night Football Specials.

From the Back Page to the Front Room is a history of football and the media that explains that while at times their relationship has been turbulent it has for the most part been mutually beneficial almost since the game began.

Speaking to The Sports Bookshelf, Domeneghetti said that the bidding wars that attract such interest when TV rights are up for grabs are, in fact, nothing new.

"You could think this was a new phenomenon but it happened initially with radio and then with the cinema newsreels," he said. "The newsreel companies fought for the rights for football just the same.  Obviously the sums involved were a lot less, but the companies nonetheless saw football as something of value to fight over.

  • Buy From the Back Page to the Front Room from Amazon

"From the beginnings of the media industry, sport has been seen as a way of selling content and a way of selling technology.  It was all very well inventing a radio, for example, but you needed something on the radio to listen to.

"Radio, TV and newspapers have all found a lot of success on the back of sport in general but through football in particular.

"And it has been a mutually conducive relationship. Just as football was important to newspapers in selling their Saturday night editions, so newspapers were important to football in those initial years of the Football League as a means of communicating and promoting the game.

"It has always been a relationship to benefit both parties. I'm not sure Rupert Murdoch's success would have happened on the scale it has if he had not won the football rights.   Likewise the money Sky gave to football was vitally important in kicking on from the low point of the 1980s and post-Hillsborough to become the very different and much more modern entertainment product it is today."
Football drove satellite TV boom

Domeneghetti, a journalist since the 1990s and currently North-East football correspondent for the Morning Star, set about writing From the Back Page to the Front Room largely because it was the kind of book he would have been keen to read had it existed already.

"It occurred to me that while there were a lot of histories of the media, such as the Andrew Marr book My Trade, a lot of books about the history of football and also some books about sports media, there wasn't a book that looked at the relationship between football and the media," he said.

"Yet sport has played a key part in the development of all media -- newspapers, radio, television, satellite television and now the internet.  It was the kind of book I wanted to read, so I thought I'd try to write it myself."

Domeneghetti combines his football writing with lecturing in journalism and the sociology of sport and his interest in football's influence on society as well as its position in the media industry shines through in the text.   The depth in which he explores each part of the story makes the reader's experience a little like being escorted through a museum of football and media history with a personal guide ready to provide extra background information to go with every exhibit, or to put it into the context of the day.  Interviews with prominent figures in both the game and the media industry, including Greg Dyke, Henry Winter, Jacqui Oatley, Jonathan Wilson and Hope Powell, further enhance the tour.

There is so much detail, in fact, that it is hard to imagine that anyone, no matter how deeply involved with the football media industry, could fail to learn something new.  Little wonder that one reviewer suggested it should be adopted as a definitive textbook for media students, and not just those with an interest in sport.

"I wanted to produce a book that non-academic people could read and enjoy and get something from and that academic people could look at and recognise as well researched and could add something to the subject," Domeneghetti said.
Author Nick Hornby

As well as charting the relationship between football and newspapers in the past and with radio and television in the modern era, the author looks at such diverse areas of the media as the fanzine explosion and the men's magazine market.  There is even a chapter on football comics.

Football literature and the influence of Nick Hornby's groundbreaking Fever Pitch comes under the microscope in a chapter on the changing nature of books about the game, in which Domeneghetti asks why it took so long for the intelligent analysis with which we are so familiar now to find willing publishers.  The answer to that question comes broadly within the spectrum of social change, in which football and football coverage by the media, the author argues, has had a key role.

Fever Pitch changed the books market, and to a certain extent even the perception of football across English society, in the way that it allowed middle class fans, largely ignored previously as the media remained wedded to the notion that football was a working class pursuit, to acquire some ownership rights of their own by opening the way to intelligent discussion of the game across a whole range of publications that might once have seen football as too trivial to be worthy of their attention.

Domeneghetti argues that, far from being trivial, football has been and will continue to be hugely important to the British culture and that of all the nations in which it is played. Much can be learned about a country, he says, from the way its media covers football and sport in general.

"If you want to understand a country there is probably no better way than looking at its coverage of sport," he said. "It will tell you how strong is that country's sense of nationalism, what its attitudes are to race, to women, to homosexuality, all manner of things, through the prism of football.  Not many other things can you do that with, I would have thought."
Media starved women's football of publicity

Nowhere is this theory more strongly supported than in the book's chapter on women in football, which demonstrates how prevailing attitudes towards women across society are reflected in and perhaps magnified by football, from the Football Association's effective banning of organised women's football soon after World War I -- in spite of, or perhaps because of its enormous popularity while the country's menfolk were otherwise engaged -- to the barriers faced by female football journalists and broadcasters.

Liberally sprinkled with footnotes, and with a comprehensive bibliography and a well-organised index, From the Back Page to the Front Room has the feel of an academic textbook.  Yet Domeneghetti's style is light and accessible and quite apart from anything else it is a good read.

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