Is competition always good for consumers? What about the grass roots? Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the rising price of TV football is bad for all of us

The news that BT has secured exclusive rights to all pan-European club competition has serious long-term implications for the game and for BT.

The breaking of a monopoly, a kick in the shins for Rupert Murdoch, more money going into sport – on the face of it, the news that BT has secured exclusive rights to all pan-European club competition in a deal that will see £897m go into the game over three years from 2015 is good. You can no doubt see the “but” coming here.

Monopoly, we’re told, is bad because the monopolist can charge what it wants without the discipline of competition. That’s why Sky’s seemingly inexorable takeover of live football broadcasting seemed so threatening. Sky executives recognised the potential drawing power of football, and other sports, and so set out to build a pay-TV platform by securing exclusive rights. It was classic loss-leader stuff – buy a valuable commodity for whatever it takes, hook the customers, then slowly ramp up the prices. So competition for Sky must be good for consumers. Or so the argument goes.

But what is the situation that now confronts the football fan? If you want to watch the Premier League or the Football League, you’ll need a Sky subscription. That will secure you most games. But if you want to see all the live games, you’ll need a BT subscription as well, because they have limited exclusive rights. If you want to watch the Champions League or the Europa League from 2015 onwards, you’ll need a BT subscription. So if you want to watch the full range of football, you’ll need two subscriptions.

The price of two packages will be more expensive than the price of one. Especially as, for at least one of the packages, you won’t be able to take advantage of the discounts that come with taking broadband, TV or phone line services from the supplier, because only one supplier can provide access to phone, broadband or TV.

If, as a football fan, you can’t afford two subscriptions, you will be able to watch fewer games. If you can’t afford any pay-TV subscriptions, you will be able to watch fewer still. And yet we are told that competition can only benefit the consumer. The facts in this case prove the opposite. The dedicated football consumer was better off when all matches were available either free to air or through a single pay-TV package.

There is, of course, no “right” to watch football on TV. Personally, I have no objection to paying for a dedicated sports channel in principle. That’s partly because I know how lazy the free-to-air broadcasters got when they had their own monopoly, partly because TV is about more than sport, and partly because the majority of people are not that interested in sport.

But it’s also true that sport, especially football, is a big, important part of the national psyche. And that watching sport at the top level fuels interest in its grass roots. That’s why it’s a concern that the price of watching football on TV is rising.

In the aftermath of the BT deal being announced, there was a fair bit of hairshirtism. People said: “This should make people go to watch actual games live instead”. But doing one thing doesn’t exclude the other. The people who go to live games are those most likely to want to watch lots of other games on TV. And not going to games, especially in the Premier League, is often a product of lack of available tickets or high prices, rather than a deliberate choice to be an armchair fan.

It’s worth mentioning here that additional money from the TV deals currently in place could have been used to lower ticket prices at no cost to clubs or players. The game chose not to do that, and it seems unlikely it will have a change of heart when the BT money is banked. Big TV deals feed ticket price rises – all about the value of the product, see? – so in fact TV rights sales only benefit the rights holders.

Much of the money from the TV bonanza of the last 20 years has overwhelmingly gone into the pockets of players. It has also made English football clubs attractive targets for speculators and investment funds, breaking the bond between club, sporting institution and community that had helped to give the modern "brands" their value. There’s no evidence to suggest this latest deal will do any different.

In fact, it could make things worse. The bigger deal means bigger prize money in European competition. So winning competitions becomes even less important – what counts as winning is qualifying for the competitions that offer the most appearance money. And the gap between those that regularly appear in those competitions and those that don’t will continue to increase.

What that could do is make football even less competitive and therefore even less interesting. With even dedicated fans forced to choose which competition to concentrate on because they cannot afford to concentrate on them all, some competitions will become more of a pull than others. It’s not too hard to imagine a time when the Champions League is the only game in town, and domestic leagues are just sideshows.

The audience could begin to splinter – a process fuelled by the growing tension between fans as backdrops to the brand identity needed in the TV age and fans as ordinary human beings under financial pressure – and when it does, the game will become less attractive to TV companies.

I’m not about to roll out the "football bubble will soon burst" cliché – it’s been said for years and there’s still no evidence it will happen soon. But it would be foolish not to consider the long-term picture. Which is where we return to Sky.

While the BT deal is undoubtedly a blow for Sky, it’s interesting to note the broadcaster has stated its strategy is to grow as a broadcaster, not a sports broadcaster. It has used football to build its pay-TV business. BT is now doing the same. Football’s trouble is that, while other businesses realise its value, it doesn’t. It thinks selling itself to the highest bidder means it is realising its value. But it’s wrong.

Football’s reaction, or at least the Premier League’s, to the latest news is to rub its hands with glee at what it might get offered in the next TV deal. Investing the money it is currently getting in the game to ensure its survival is far too long term, and requires a powerful body that runs a sport to assert itself rather than be happy to delegate power to the temporary owners of popular brands who seek short-term profit before moving on to the next prospect.

A wise football administrator would be one now asking the question, when football loses its value to TV, as it now looks like it might do to Sky, what value does it retain?

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear