Ed Woodward claims he wants to aggressively market MUTV. Seb Stafford-Bloor looks into the growing threat of clubs only sharing what they'd like you to see
Club television channels are strange places. Fundamentally, they’re churches to the team in question; havens for supporters who want their football views unchallenged and their nostalgia undiluted.
Subscribers will tell you that they pay their fees for the reserve team football, the slanted alternative commentary and the occasional pre-season friendly, but - really - it’s the safe space that they crave. A place where everything is fine, none of the players are unhappy or up for sale, and in which every hope and dream is comfortably within reach.
The intention is fairly obvious: to use Manchester United’s television and social media channels to circumvent the traditional media
On Tuesday, Manchester United’s vice-chairman Ed Woodward hosted a conference call with investors on the New York Stock Exchange and, while also trumpeting the “tremendous progress” made under Jose Mourinho and the latest financial projections, he also revealed the club’s intention to “aggressively market” their in-house media channel.
That should be soundtracked by ominous organ music. Woodward is, of course, motivated by his employer’s best interest, but the intention is fairly obvious: to use Manchester United’s television and social media channels to circumvent the traditional media.
It’s something which has been in the air for a while and a dynamic which several individual players have attempted to create via their own websites, but United have the existing fanbase and the resources to make it a reality. In a sporting sense, they are a commercial phenomenon and this will be their inevitable attempt to purify the coverage which surrounds them.
It’s logical, but it’s also troubling. A PR Week interview with the BBC’s sports editor Dan Roan (published on May 16) spoke of “the trust between the media and football clubs” having been “eroded”, with Roan feeling that journalists were now routinely being punished for trying to do their jobs and breaking stories.
He has a point. Several journalists - including a local paper in its entirety - have been banned from Newcastle United’s press box in recent years for daring to question some of the more opaque aspects of Mike Ashley’s ownership.
Lower down the pyramid, Port Vale, Rotherham, Nottingham Forest and Crawley Town have all imposed partial or total bans on local media in recent seasons and, in 2014, Swindon Town excluded the Swindon Advertiser from press conferences before, in 2015, extending the action to all media to protect the value of a content-sharing agreement with an android app. (This is the same Swindon that published a match report which failed to mention their relegation.)
The culture of distrust is highly visible, but so too is the intent to control the news cycle. Newcastle (again) agreed a preferred media partnership with Sky Sports and The Mirror at the beginning of the 2015/16 season. When questioned about the strategy, managing director Lee Charnley justified it as an attempt to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver”.
British clubs seem increasingly intent on having their cake and eating it
There’s a chilling phrase. Not just because it can be imagined echoing around downtown Pyongyang, but because some football executives believe they are entitled to that layer of trust.
While it’s not a universal problem, some British clubs seem increasingly intent on having their cake and eating it - on benefitting from the mass popular interest and visibility football affords, but not enduring the scrutiny and accountability which typically comes with that.