The amount of free to air football on television has decreased significantly over the last few years, accelerated by the well documented riches provided through multi million pound/Euro TV deals spanning most major European Leagues , European club, International and worldwide competitions.
Many arguments could be made both for and against the power of television in football, how it is perhaps making this less accessible for fans, making life more difficult – particularly with the UEFA “weekend of football” for international games which involves games played Thursday through to Tuesday, a completely bonkers concept making fans trail through rush hour traffic on a Monday or battle with “Sunday Service” public transport timetables to attend games. This is fuelled by the desire to show as much on TV as possible, in turn increasing revenues, allowing more people who cannot attend the game to watch and increasing interest in the competition as a whole. What it also does as a result however is make it less appealling to attend a match on a rainy Sunday night a 3 hour train journey away, instead watching on TV.
Big club sides (mainly those on a losing run to be honest) often moan about TV schedules, particularly around Christmas where there are competitive games every 2-3 days to fit in with a bumper festive audience on TV. This is a source of frustration for top managers, insisting that their players need a rest or calling foul because their opponent has had forty five minutes extra to prepare since their last game. However clubs cannot really bite the hand that feeds them, after all the top player who may be tired after a hectic schedule is only there due to the wages and transfer fee on offer, partly or wholly as a result of the TV revenues pumped into the game.
There are positives to TV football as above, revenues are increased and the opportunity for fans to watch football from across the world is realised. We all love the game and tune in religiously to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday, watch the Sportscene Highlights on the BBC website through the week or indeed fork out for Sky or BT subscriptions or for beers, juices, coffees in pubs and bars showing live games. There is a simple economics to it all, there is mass demand and therefore there is mass supply, with some clever accountant pricing this at a rate which people, bars and companies can just about afford.
As eluded to above, here in the UK the TV football market is governed by Sky and BT Sport who share out the live rights to the English Premier League, English Lower Leagues, Scottish Premiership, Champions League, Europa League and the International Football – not to mention major European club football from France, Spain, Germany and Italy. Terrestrial channels have highlights packages such as the BBC with Match of the Day and Sportscene, while ITV have some rights to England internationals and then European Highlights. There are also some highlights available via platforms such as YouTube of European club football. There are magazine shows such as Football Focus, Final Score and whatever the hell that shambles of an effort is on STV2 as well to provide a bit of interest. Live football on terrestrial TV is, broadly speaking, limited to FA or Scottish Cup games as well as the major summer tournaments (for the time being).
It wasn’t so long ago that at least some of the above was available on terrestrial TV, with Champions League and Europa League games disappearing off ITV and BT’s Freeview channel within the last 2-3 years. It is a long time since the golden days of Football Italia live on a Sunday or a short period around 15 years ago where live Scottish Football was available on terrestrial TV on a Sunday afternoon.
Pay per view or subscription football is here to stay, and to be honest has been since the boom in the early 90’s. This isn’t going to change and millions are more than happy to fork out directly or indirectly (via pubs and the like) to pay to watch top level football. As above, this is simple economics and where there is a consistent demand there will be this type of supply.
But what can fans do, in these times of austerity, to watch football when finances and other commitments mean that purse strings are tightening and the ability to afford subscriptions is being stretched?
Options in terms of streaming are available via ropey internet channels – but these are technically illegal and are facing a clamp down, so perhaps do not represent the safest option for live football watching. The “pooling” of a subscription is also an option with a shared account, which allows at least a couple of extra devices to be utilised meaning that one person could watch on TV in one location with another watching via a laptop or similar in another for a split of the cost. Again though, this still represents a commitment in terms of subscription and even though halved, a financial outlay.
An unusual or alternative option, the Bohemian Option, is watching Czech League football over the weekend. This was first brought to my attention via a good friend who moved to Prague in 2016. While catching up, discussions as always reverted to football and I was made aware of the Czech sports broadcaster “iSport.cz” and the associated app “Liga Zive” (available online or via the app store/Google Play). The app is free to download and allows access to highlights and live streaming of all Czech League games – for a fee of course. However, before I am accused of being totally hypocritical or contradicting myself, the fee involved (charged via the app in the same fashion as buying a book from Google Play) is roughly £2.69 for a single game or £3.39 for the entire weekend of football (all games available, you can chop and change between). Presumably this is readily available in the UK due to no UK network (yet) holding the UK rights to Czech Football and thus this remains available to individuals. There’s no contract, you just pay for games or weekends of interest and so while the cost could still mount up if you watched every week (30 weeks x £3.30 = £101.70) this still represents a saving on what you would expect to pay for a more orthodox subscription.
But what of the quality of football on show and is this just watching for the sake of watching or for the sake of being tight fisted and saving a few quid to keep the wife happy?
The quality of football is good for a start. I would pitch it as above the Scottish Premiership, perhaps with the exception of Celtic for the most part. The top teams like Viktoria Plzen (runaway leaders so far this season), Slavia Prague and Sigma Olomouc (nightmares for Aberdeen fans due to a previous skelping) would definitely give Celtic and the rest of the Scottish Premiership a significant test – as is being proven with the performances of Plzen and Slavia in this season’s Europa League, both doing well at the time of writing, albeit like Scottish teams the form in Europe year on year fluctuates. Another club, Zlin, are also in the Europa League this season making a compelling case, on paper, that the level of Czech football is above that of Scotland at least in terms of comparing on the only “level” platform available, European Club football.
The teams in mid-table or towards the bottom of the league are, as we see at home, of a reduced quality and that along with ramshackle or half full stadiums do reduce the quality of the spectacle somewhat – but then this is the case at Scottish Premiership grounds, the likes of Hamilton or Partick Thistle play in small stadiums with three or less stands on most weeks.
The type of football played is as you would expect from a central European League. Technically proficient, tactically aware with a good dose of physicality added in. The top players stand out, Milan Skoda for Slavia or Michal Krmencik for Plzen have a combination of speed (or speed of thought), strength and technical ability which does allow them to stand out and noticeably appear as the most distinct threats for their respective teams. Connoisseurs of the Czech League may beg to differ of course, but from watching from afar this certainly appears to be the case.
This season, as above, Plzen are runaway leaders with a near perfect record at the time of writing. But one sided leagues are not totally uncommon throughout Europe and not even the biggest leagues are immune from this so I don’t see this as a detraction. Games are often entertaining to watch, particularly those involving the top teams.
Czech football therefore offers an alternative, and cost effective, source of football entertainment over the weekend (and opens up ample excuses and opportunities for “research” trips of course – to the beautiful Prague or the home of lager, Plzen – so there are potentially added benefits also).