The Premier League don’t want you to know this but sometimes the football is absolutely awful.
Watching Newcastle United play Norwich City was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Here were two teams in English football’s elite league, a league promoted as the best on earth. The 22 footballers who lined up are surely very good at playing football individually; they must be, mustn’t they? But the game that unfolded was so appalling it was as though someone had made stupidity into a sport. It was hilariously bad.
Players seemed to be just running around aimlessly, some stumbling around cluelessly in the manner of people who have recently been hit by a bus. Most seemed unable to hold onto the ball for long, ran into the wrong places at the wrong times and neither side, on a basic level, seemed to know what to do. At times it was as though they really hadn’t played much football. Better, more interesting games will be watched this weekend in the National League. Elite? There was nothing elite about this game.
This all played out on Amazon, who have bought 20 games per season for three seasons for £90million, so £1.5million per game. While this is massively lower than Sky and BT Sport’s £9million per game – and is just so much spilled change from the drunks’ trousers to Amazon – it felt about £1.4million too much for this match. Obviously, many of us had a Prime account long before Amazon bought football rights, so it feels like an additional service more than a new subscription. It feels free, even if technically it isn’t.
Turning over to see Leeds play Crystal Palace was like night and day. Here were two teams that could actually play football and while Leeds only won it with a late goal, it was nonetheless engaging throughout, which is about as much as anyone can expect.
It is this inconsistency in the level of entertainment inherent in the game of football that has always restricted the amount of people prepared to pay to watch it on TV but this has never been properly understood by broadcasters (or they’re just in denial). Any game can be awful and boring, any game can be thrilling and hilarious. You just don’t know which in advance. So it’s a crap shoot. While we subscribe to platforms like Netflix on the assumption there will always be something we want to see and there will always be something that is good, no-one can ever guarantee that about football. And if you get a terrible one, or one that doesn’t fit, you can’t take it back to the store for a refund, or to swap it for something else. You’ve paid for your Jonjo Shelvey and you’re stuck with it.
While plenty are prepared to take this risk, many more are not and is the reason the viewing figures have stalled. Do broadcasters understand this? The fact is most football is quite boring; the ball is usually only in play for about 60% of the time and moments of excitement are often few. This isn’t a complaint though. It’s just the nature of the beast and we all accept that as we pay to go through the turnstiles. But being at a match is a totally different experience to watching on TV, it is an all-encompassing, far more visceral, physical thing to sitting on your sofa passively watching Shelvey thundering around like a carthorse chasing carrots.
The marketing of the Premier League never acknowledges that a game might be terrible. It’s always sold as thrilling because they don’t want people to think they’re being ripped off paying to see this dreck. But that’s just dishonest. And that level of dishonesty is shot through the whole of the game. The entire thing is founded on this lie.
The Premier League isn’t a special form of football, it isn’t conducted on some sort of footballing astral plane. It’s still just football and, in the case of Newcastle and Norwich, on Tuesday, barely even that.
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