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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.