On 6th August 1995 English drinking culture changed. Restrictions on pub opening hours were amended and pubs were now allowed to open on Sunday afternoons. Out went the tables and chairs; and the pool tables, and pinball machines. In came the poser tables and big screen projectors. One week later, around 5:15pm, a Vinny Samways goal earned Everton a Charity Shield victory over Blackburn Rovers witnessed by forty thousand supporters at Wembley, many armchair fans and, for the first time, millions of punters in boozers. The novelty factor of having a pint in a pub on a Sunday afternoon alone would’ve been sufficient enough a pull for the hordes and, despite the inauspicious nature of the game, bars were packed. It was a game changer.
The afore mentioned all day opening (coming just three years after Sky won the exclusive rights to live screenings for the shiny new Premier League), England’s relative success in the ’96 European Championships and the best supported team in the country entering a period of domestic dominance meant that football in general, and especially in pubs, was booming.
Football and alcohol have always been the most faithful of bedfellows and landlords jumped on Sky’s rebranding of our beautiful game.
Vertical drinking was encouraged, and indeed is often the only way one can watch a match in the boozer. The reasons are obvious, of course; people drink more when they are stood up and you can squeeze more people in.
Sky was relatively cheap for publicans then and landlords could fill their pub with football fans at a time when traditionally they were closed. This desire to cram as many people as possible into the bar had a knock-on effect – Vacuous pubs combined with another relaxing of licensing laws allowing more premises to be converted into bars meant more competition, and the easiest way for many landlords to turn a penny was to stack it high and sell it cheap. Happy hours, 2 for 1 offers and-all-you-can-drink-for-a-tenner promotions became common and contributed greatly to the poor reputation endured by pubs and clubs in recent times.
Nowadays Sky and BT Sport is very expensive for pubs, averaging around £1200 per month combined. Once the standard bearer for Sky, we become the bandit and are punished as such. Rupert doesn’t want people watching in the pub – people are less likely to subscribe to a domestic sports package if they regularly pop to their local for games and you can’t hear the adverts over the hubbub of half time plastic punditry and muttered circumspection, which is probably why commercials during live matches have become ultra-visual, and also why when you close your eyes on a Sunday night all you can see is the gargantuan head of Ray Winstone.
Let’s have a look at that £14.5k per year and see exactly what we get for our money: 154 live premier league games, say 13 per month, £90 per game. Working (very roughly) on a 50% margin including overheads, a pub would have to take £180 more than they normally do to break even. Yes we can easily achieve that with a 4pm Sunday game from Old Trafford – much harder on a cold Monday night at Stoke. On top of this there’s the cost of HD TVs and projectors. Not to mention the knowledge and mental dexterity required to screen three matches at the same time.
Admittedly there are other sports available within their packages, but it’s rare I put on extra staff for Bath v Saracens or Somerset v Northants . Football is the music that the till sings to.
It’s easy to see why stories of publicans being prosecuted for showing games illegally are so prevalent. Many landlords are torn between making a loss on Sky or losing custom; a custom built on the foundations of a product that has become too precious. Many different systems are available on which to watch live football at a fraction of the cost of a Sky/BT package and it’s easy to be tempted by the savings on offer, but, speaking from experience, it’s never long before you get a letter from Media Prosecution Services – the suited henchmen of a broadcasting despot.
There has been the occasional victory, notably Karen Murphy, landlady of a small pub in Portsmouth who took on Sky and MPS and won – a victory for the minnow over the shark, but ultimately a rare and futile one. As ever the big boys prevail with a mixture of intimidation and litigation resulting in less places showing the match.
Happily, many pubs are deciding to go down a different route; cash previously spent on satellite TV is now spent on other forms of entertainment. Pubs are becoming more diverse and focusing on other aspects of the trade. Live music is thriving in many areas as an upshot of this diversification of investment and pubs that continue to fork out for Sky are generally busy and atmospheric for games.
At the end of the day it’s galling that we have to dance to Murdoch’s flute, but he knows what we all know: if you can’t be at the game then the pub is the next best thing.