Hartlepool United v Stockport County: The impact of BT Sport coverage on the Vanarama National League

Arriving at the 11,000 capacity Edgeley Park, you see the BT Sport cameras in position and it’s almost bewildering that you’re at a non-league match.

Thursday, 10th October 2019, 1:01 pm
Updated Thursday, 10th October 2019, 1:05 pm
The BT Sport cameras at Victoria Park. Picture by FRANK REID

The growing reputation of non-league football in recent years has been significant and long overdue.

Bringing football back to its roots with a communal sense of making a difference and getting behind your local team is something that often dissipates the higher you go up the pyramid.

These days, the Vanarama National League is almost indistinguishable from League Two in terms of quality and the stature of the clubs that compete in it.

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Former Football League sides like Stockport County and Hartlepool United have helped raise the profile of non-league football, particularly when boosted by the coverage it gets on BT Sport. The teams locked horns live in front of the cameras on Wednesday evening with Pools falling to a 2-1 defeat.

There’s no other country in the world where you can see weekly highlights of all matches plus a live televised match of fifth tier football broadcast nationally via one of the leading sports channels.

For all the criticism directed at BT Sport, some commendation is in order as the television coverage National League teams get is often superior to that of League Two and arguably even League One.

The fact we’re in early October and Pools’ league matches have been broadcast live on television more times than Premier League side Watford have this season goes to show what a good deal some (not all) National League sides are getting in terms of coverage.

The likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley, Crystal Balace, Brighton and Sheffield United have all been shown as many times as both Hartlepool and Stockport this season.

Only three league matches from League Two and League One have been broadcast live so far in 2019-20. Salford City’s first ever match as a Football League club against Stevenage was shown live on Sky Sports while big League One matches, Sunderland v Portsmouth and MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon have also been televised.

In contrast, all 24 National League teams will have been broadcast live at least once by the end of November.

This has been the case for the last two seasons as BT Sport made a conscious step to balance the coverage as previously certain teams would go full seasons without being shown on TV.

While the step is positive for bringing non-league football to a national audience, the financial impact is far from comparable to what we see at the top level.

Television rights have seen the money involved in football sky rocket over the past couple of decades and even more so in the past few years.

Football package rights for the Premier League are multi-billion pound deals that inject obscene amounts of money into the top flight of English football

A key example being Huddersfield Town, relegated from the Premier League last season with just 16 points, yet featured eight times live on Sky Sports and BT Sport last season, picking up just shy of £100 million as a result.

The money the Terriers received from just simply being in the Premier League meant they earned more than the Italian champions Juventus or German champions Bayern Munich.

In addition to the £79.4million equal share received, all English top flight sides earn upwards of £1 million per televised match

It’s safe to say things are slightly different in the National League.

With teams just fighting to stay afloat in most cases, money is not an expendable resource at National League level and the financial ‘boost’ given to the clubs by BT Sport is fairly negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Home teams receive £6,000 per televised match while away teams get £2,000. Considering Pools’ shortfall is thought to be around £400,000 per season, the television money National League teams receive for league matches is rarely going to have much impact, though it does provide potential revenue streams from a commercial perspective.

The fact that the fixtures are fairly evenly spread out between the teams these days means no side will have a huge advantage financially. As the season goes on, matches deemed to be of interest will be selected and teams having successful seasons will be rewarded.

It is no coincidence that the most broadcast teams in the National League last season (not including play-off matches) were Leyton Orient and Salford City – both of whom were promoted.

So far this season Pools have been on television twice, once at Victoria Park against Woking and last night at Stockport. Those fixtures have brought in £8,000 worth of television money into the club which is never a bad thing but is only enough to pay the monthly wages of around three first team players in reality.

BT Sport’s coverage is above anything you should expect in non-league football though the restrictions and demands imposed on clubs as a result has been subject of some criticism.

National League highlights are now shown on a Saturday night, those highlight packages will have been filmed and edited by a volunteer camera operator at the club to strict deadlines. It’s a demanding unpaid role that provides good experience though it has seen clubs clash with both BT and the National League.

Ultimately, the club are filming and editing matches free of charge yet they aren’t allowed to upload highlights of their Saturday matches until Monday while BT Sport and the National League are able to take the footage off the clubs and publish it whenever they like.

It’s just the nature of football media these days, the rights of clubs are dwindling as broadcasters are able to dictate things.

Perhaps a middle ground will be found, perhaps not. But for all it’s faults, the coverage is just what non-league football needs right now.