By Jason McKeown
“Are you watching BBC?” boomed out of Valley Parade during the closing stages of Bradford City’s superb victory over Sunderland on Sunday. It was a rhetorical question, posed after Auntie Beeb snubbed the chance to cover the Bantams’ FA Cup exploits – but it is one the corporation opted to answer anyway.
Via Match of the Day that evening, via Gary Lineker on Twitter, and via this blog post, the BBC defended their decision to favour the live screening of an uninspiring all-Premier League clash between two strugglers over City’s latest giant killing.
They couldn’t be sure Sunderland would win their FA Cup replay with Fulham – and who wanted to watch City-Fulham? It was the FA’s fault for forcing the BBC to decide their live TV choices too quickly. Or the police and the clubs for wanting to fix a firm date for the game with more than 10 days’ notice. The BBC even claimed they were going to talk to the FA about changing the rules over TV selection.
All of which might have been intended with sincerity from the BBC, but feels somewhat hollow as news emerges this evening that they have apparently passed up the opportunity to cover City live again. The Bantams vs Royals is going to be shown live on BT Sport. BBC had first and third-choice picks of the four quarter final ties, and have opted for Man United vs Arsenal (understandably) and Aston Villa vs West Brom (eerily similar to Villa vs Leicester).
Let’s be frank about this. The BBC’s stance on Bradford City vs Fulham/Sunderland was entirely understandable to anyone who can see beyond their own partisan viewpoint. Would we Bradford City supporters have felt upset about TV coverage if we were not the League One team involved in the cup run, and instead it was Rochdale or Crawley Town possibly playing Fulham? Would we have cared that they missed out on £250k TV money? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, the logic from the BBC is not impossible to understand.
And in the cold light of day, Bradford City vs Reading is the least attractive of the four quarter final ties that the BBC and BT Sport spent Tuesday afternoon fighting over. If it is ratings that matter, Aston Villa vs West Brom has greater appeal.
The whole fall out over the City-Sunderland non-TV show either galvanised the club or made us look silly. Just because we defeated Chelsea, it should not bring an entitlement that City had to be shown live on the BBC in round five, or have to be in the quarter finals. I enjoyed the campaign led by Mark Lawn and some excellent points were made that didn’t reflect well on TV companies, but more crucial was the game itself. With no TV, Valley Parade was sold out and the atmosphere was amongst the best the ground has ever experienced.
The bottom line is that, financially, it matters not whether City vs Reading is screened live on BBC or BT Sport. The cameras will be at Valley Parade on the day and the payout is assured. That is the most important aspect.
But still, it is very disappointing to be overlooked by the BBC. And here’s why: to paraphrase Ron Burgundy, the BBC is kind of a big deal. And for a football club that – to the best of my knowledge – has never had a game screened live on national terrestrial TV in its history, the level of exposure they would have experienced through being live on the Beeb would have meant a lot.
Sure, BT Sport is a national audience. But it is a national football audience. It is a channel for sports fans; largely sports fans who are devoted enough to pay a subscription (or who happen to have BT broadband). A seven-figure amount of people will tune in to Bradford City vs Reading via BT Sport, but these people will be the sort who tune into most football matches shown on TV.
BBC One is mainstream. And if City were shown on it, millions more people would have tuned in to their game. An audience that goes beyond football fanatics (who will still tune in), to people who hold a casual interest. And being stood inside Valley Parade singing our hearts out during the match against Reading, it would have felt extra special imagining just how many people were hearing the noise you were making through the BBC cameras capturing your world.
The TV viewing public would have been wide-ranging. Family members who normally wish you well on your way to the match, never fully understanding just what Bradford City means to you. Work colleagues, who typically have only heard of the Bantams because you talk about them in response to that widely-used Friday afternoon question: “What are you doing this weekend?” People in Bradford and West Yorkshire, who usually care little about the local football club but are amazed by all the headlines they are making. Young children getting into football, who up until now may not fully realise that there is more to it than the Premier League.
We have never had that opportunity before, and it’s difficult for football fans who routinely get that exposure to understand how special it would have felt.
Imagine the benefits of showcasing the noise and passion of us Bradford City fans to a national terrestrial TV audience? People watching might have sat down to watch the whole game, or even glanced over it for 20 minutes. Most would have little relevance to the long-term good of Bradford City Football Club, but others may enjoy what they see enough to look into going to a Bantams match. This is already starting to happen, at least judging by the number of people who have asked me about how much it costs to watch Bradford City over the last couple of days.
In his blog piece defending the BBC’s non-selection of Bradford City vs Sunderland, Mark Cole wrote “For those who can’t afford subscription to sports channels, it’s been great to be able to see live international stars like Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria, Steven Gerrard, Ron Vlaar and Alex Song, all as part of the licence fee.” A fantastic point (although citing Ron Vlaar is stretching it a bit), but in our partisan world we wanted licence fee payers to see live Bradford City’s own stars like Rory McArdle, Billy Knott, Jon Stead and James Hanson. These guys deserve it.
It’s just really disappointing that we are denied that opportunity to be in the brighter spotlight. The logic over another ‘snub’ is undeniable, but the FA Cup is supposed to be about magic and dreaming and – to use the BBC’s hashtag – getting carried away. And it would have meant the world to appear live on BBC One to the nation. It would have been the biggest audience to ever watch a Bradford City match.
BT Sport is great of course, and the exposure they will provide the club should not be dismissed. But on Sunday nobody one was chanting “Are you watching BT Sport?” There’s a good reason for that.