In 2007, the board of FC United of Manchester asked their supporters to boycott a game after the Unibond League changed a kick-off time to allow a live broadcast of the match on an internet television channel. It’s a story worth revisiting and, three years on, the question that many opposed to their snub asked might soon need to be answered – what would FCUM do if a national broadcaster wanted to do the same?
Invision’s John Warrington, the man behind NPL TV and the live broadcast of Curzon Ashton v FCUM, had ambitious plans. After signing a three-year contract with the Unibond League, Invision were to offer free highlights of featured games online, as well as charging £3.95 for a fortnightly ‘Match of the Week’ to an internet audience which they claimed reached 15,000 a week.
But who were the 15,000 and, when you could pay less than £4 more to go to a Unibond League game, how many of them were actually paying to watch matches online?
Citing a high number of subscribers, Invision were to later reduce the price of NPL TV’s live matches from £3.95 to nothing. But it would be a bizarre business move to build a dam in front of a supposedly successful revenue stream. It would be easy to speculate that only a tiny fraction of the 15,000 actually paid for live games, leaving Invision hoping that freebie matches would attract more visitors for potential advertisers to sell to.
Come the end of the first season of the three-year deal, the Unibond League told its members that Invision had not met its obligations and that clubs should not budget to receive the monies (a six-figure sum over three years) that they were promised. NPL TV had failed, and if their death warrant hadn’t been signed six months earlier, it had certainly been printed.
Despite pre-season assurances to the contrary – which the Unibond League deny – and consultations with both clubs, the league committee, at the request of Invision, moved the kick-off of Curzon Ashton’s Christmas fixture with FCUM from 3pm to lunchtime, allowing it to be shown live on NPL TV. The goalposts had been moved, and FCUM responded by urging their fans to boycott the fixture.
With FCUM formed by Manchester United supporters disillusioned with life at Old Trafford, it was refreshingly unsurprising that the supporters stayed away. Curzon followers and neutrals made up the vast majority of a 297 crowd when otherwise away fans would have been expected to travel in the low thousands. It was a PR disaster for both Invision and the Unibond League, but FCUM could celebrate victory both off and, with a 2-0 win, on the pitch.
Curzon, supportive of FCUM’s intentions, would have lost thousands of pounds in potential gate receipts that day, not compensated for by the fee from Invision, believed to be as low as £400. But while fans of other teams in the league – and in an astonishing press release, the Unibond League themselves – criticised FCUM for that very reason, the Rebels’ altruistic stance was undoubtedly for the greater good:
“No further games were moved for TV that season,” explains FCUM fan Sam. “It showed we could do things differently. We sent a strong message to the league and their internet TV partner.”
This weekend, FCUM will be entered into Sunday lunchtime’s FA Cup First Round draw for the first time in their short history, albeit because their Fourth Qualifying Round at home to Barrow doesn’t kick off until later that day. A win against Barrow, and FCUM could find themselves hosting a Football League club in a game which would undoubtedly attract the interest of ITV and their live FA Cup coverage.
At the time of the boycott of the Curzon game, FCUM stated that they are “not opposed to the re-arrangement of any fixture date and/or time, provided that it meets with the approval of and benefits the respective clubs and their supporters.” So, would their supporters be happy for their club to take the considerable cash and exposure generated by a televised tie in exchange for a kick-off time designated by ITV?
FCUM supporter Steven explains why the situation would be very different to that of the Curzon match:
“When you enter the FA Cup, you are aware of the rules and you know that games may well be moved. At the end of our first season, we held a members vote to ask if we should enter the FA Cup, knowing the rules. The vote was yes. There is the difference. It isn’t a pre-requisite of the Unibond that you enter knowing games may be moved, but it is in the FA Cup.”
But Sam takes a slightly different view. He is “not against football being on TV. TV exposure and the revenue it generates are important to football”, but is firmly in the camp that the supporters must come first, regardless of whether the game is being shown to a tiny internet audience or to millions nationwide:
“Football and TV should be a partnership. For too long the tail has been wagging the dog. I would expect the FCUM board to try and negotiate with ITV to agree the best possible kick off time for match-going fans that also allowed the game to be shown on TV. I would then expect the board to report back on whether they thought the negotiation had been a success and put the decision to a members’ vote.”
Gary is another FCUM follower who cannot deny the benefits of TV coverage, but thinks that the supporters must take top priority:
“I’d love it if we progressed and were picked [for a live TV game], but it would have to be on our terms. Otherwise, I see no reason why we shouldn’t react as we did to the Curzon game. It would be a great platform on which to reiterate the point that football clubs should not be ruled by the demands of TV companies. If we had to forgo the broadcast fee not just for the good of FC United of Manchester, but other clubs too, then it would be something to be very proud of.”
A Barrow win on Sunday and it’s a non-story. But if FCUM progress and ITV come calling, the club’s and fans’ reaction could potentially start to turn the tide in the favour of football clubs over TV companies. Back in 2007, some critics of FCUM’s boycott accused them of not ‘getting’ non-league football, but it’s hard to see how a football club putting the interests of its supporters first could be anything but hugely positive. Maybe it’s time for the rest of football to ‘get’ FC United of Manchester.