RTÉ Sports broadcaster Paddy McKenna tells us about the new Kentaro experiment, where England’s dead rubber qualifying game this Saturday with Ukraine will only be shown exclusively online.
This Saturday evening could well be of the red letter variety for anyone who has ever sat beer in hand on their sofa, or pulled up a chair in a pub, with the express intention of watching a football match. No, I’m not talking about the immovable object meets the immovable object competition set to grace Croke Park. I am instead referring to the dead rubber fixture between England and Ukraine in Dnipro whose unique broadcast to the masses could change the face of sports broadcasting forever.
For the first time ever, an England qualifier will be shown exclusively on the internet, the rights bought up by Swiss based company Kentaro. That’s a name you might want to note down. Because if they get one million subscribers for the clash, as they are very likely to do, you and your mates could find yourselves watching the 2014 World Cup qualifiers hunched over a PC. No doubt wondering if the pixilated bald-looking blob in the top right corner of the screen is actually Stephen Ireland in a green jersey.
But why in the name of all things sacred is this game not on BBC, ITV, Sky or even Five? Well first of all, it was supposed to be on Setanta. You may’ve heard a whisper about them going bust leaving Kentaro, the company hired by the Ukranian FA to sell the rights of the game, with the rather sticky job of trying to resell a by now utterly inconsequential game of ball. That’s because those dastardly English have qualified for South Africa with two games to spare.
The maths of the sale is intriguing. Setanta, before it all went horribly Phil Brown for them, had agreed to pay £5m to Kentaro for the right to broadcast – admittedly before the game was rendered unimportant. With that deal dead, the BBC are believed to have gallantly offered between £1m and £2m for the honour of showing the game. ITV, who are a bit broke, offered a slot in the X-Factor final, which is in fairness, potentially worth a £1m record deal and a Christmas No.1. Kentaro rejected all advances. They must’ve known those creepy, high-haired Irish twins have that X-Factor in the bag.
Undeterred, Kentaro cosied up to internet sports broadcasters Perform, and together they reckon they can sell one million online subscriptions for the game for a minimum of £4.99. (The price raises to £7.99 Thursday and £11.99 for the Johnny Come Lately’s who want to come aboard on Saturday.) The sums here are not exactly difficult, sell all their subs and the minimum they take is £5m.
One million subscribers for a game of no consequence, as you can imagine, is not the easiest sell. But it’s at this point that Kentaro/Perform pulled a real masterstroke. They signed affiliate deals with 8 of the highest selling newspapers in the UK to market the match on their websites in a revenue-share basis.
This was exceptionally clever on two fronts. Firstly, and most obviously, shifting those million subscriptions suddenly looks a lot more doable. Secondly, they sidestep all that nasty negative publicity they were bound to attract had they merely denied soccer fans the opportunity to watch the game on either terrestrial or satellite TV. One of the papers signed up, The Sun, hardly renowned for its measured approach, has hailed the Kentaro deal as a ‘landmark in the digital age.’ It seems every one’s a winner baby and that’s the truth.
Except of course, the football fan. Because watching a game on your television with a can of beer, or if you prefer, with your mates down the local is a divine God-given right of every man, woman, child or beast. Those horrid folk at Kentaro have ensured that English football fans who want to watch the game will be forced to do so huddled around laptops or worse, in cinemas! Odeon have done a deal to ensure the game will be screened in 11 of their venues across the UK. Admittedly, the thought of English lager-swilling footy fans piling into the multiplexes for Sven Goran Eriksson’s measured opinions with a side of popcorn does raise a grin, but if it was us…. Joe Duffy would have his lug burned off.
And yet we Irish football fans have been here before. And there was no internet white knight to save us poor unfortunates. In 1999 Ireland drew Turkey in a two legged play off for Euro 2000 qualification. The first leg was in Dublin – we drew 1-1, you might remember Lee Carsley coming on and giving away a penalty after about 30 seconds on the park. Painful.
The return leg was in Bursa but RTE and the Turkish rights holders were unable to come to agreement on the coverage of the game. Most football fans, and probably RTE too, decided that even though there was no mention of it in the RTE Guide, Billo, Johnny and Eamonn would be there to console us once the whole thing went tits up in Turkey. The Turks would fold, the price would come down and we’d all get to watch the misery unfold right before our eyes.
The day before the game was the first real signal that the whole thing had gone whack. The Taoiseach of the time, some lad called Bertie Ahern, a football fan by all accounts, decided he should give the Turkish PM a bell to sort out impasse. It didn’t work. The next day, the day of the game, the Irish public awoke to the harsh reality that the game really was not going to be on TV. With the internet still in its infancy and broadband still Michael Guiney’s bestselling belt and nothing else, the trusty wireless was the only option for game coverage.
All was not lost however, on the Gerry Ryan show on 2FM that very day, word got out that Turkish TV channel Star TV were showing the game. You couldn’t pick it up with your satellite dish as it was. But if you could scramble on to your roof and face it for Turkey, you might just pick up Star TV. You couldn’t actually make it up. A Sky engineer came on the Ryan show to explain how you might go about repositioning your dish to pick up the Turkish Gilesy and Dunph. Many tried, and a very, very small number managed to pick up grainy images of a 37-year-old Tony Cascarino using his elbows to soften up the windy Turks. The drabbest game of football ever (so we’re told) finished 0-0, we failed to qualify, those kindly Turkish folk had done us a favour.
Back to the future and could this dead rubber in Ukraine really change the way we watch our footy? The answer is probably, ‘yes’. In media circles, TV on the internet is all the buzz. Sure it’s already happening with Youtube and its ilk. RTE have even cottoned on to this with their fancy new player. It’s a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. But don’t panic just yet, RTE have the TV rights to broadcast the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Thereafter is up for grabs.
For English football fans, Kentaro and Perform the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, set to be served at 17.15GMT this Saturday evening. The internet broadcasters have guaranteed a quality service with Sven amongst their crack analysis team. They’ve capped their subscribers at a million to ensure the bandwidth isn’t overloaded and the stream is a high quality for all viewers. Even at that, this is huge test for Britain’s broadband infrastructure. It survived the extra strain the BBC iPlayer placed upon it but one million concurrent streams of live football will surely test its mettle. The novelty factor will ensure that Kentaro and Perform will get the subscribers they need but will football fans be happy to watch Sven’s baldy pate on their computers and in cinemas for future games of consequence? We’ll know more Sunday morning.