We are deep in the Proliferation Age of live televised football.
Football has never been more popular, and accessing it has never been easier. At the height of the season, football fans can quite easily gain access to a match every night of the week – if they have the right subscription packages, or streaming sites. The number of live matches televised on in the United Kingdom during the 2018/19 season was almost immeasurable.
The ever-growing saturation of televised football is a far cry from from the 1985/86 season, when just 13 club matches were televised throughout the season from August to May. More matches had been shown to the public in previous seasons, but this mid-80s drop stemmed from a power struggle between the Football League and national broadcasters.
This financial war had enormous repercussions for football fans, as it enforced firm boundaries on the way football was consumed. The internet was still in the early stages of mobilisation which meant ‘online streaming’ was not even a phrase in lexicon, let alone a possibility.
Therefore, radio was the only option. The pre-digital age bred a football-watching audience who became accustomed to hearing a commentator relay the action to them through verbal description, rather than pictures.
Sky Sports’ Gary Taphouse is a commentator whose roots are firmly wedded to radio, as this is where he developed a passion for what has become his career.
Taphouse made his name as a radio commentator, and he still works for talkSPORT occasionally, but he now primarily works in television. He has covered a wide range of football events throughout his career, including World Cups and European Championships, but there is still a part of him that misses those early days in radio.
“I miss radio terribly because you can be more creative,” he said.
“You can have that element of humour and go off-piste. It just wouldn’t be appropriate to have a chat and joke on TV, unless there was a long pause. It feels so much more natural on radio commentary.”
Growing up in Surrey, Taphouse says Capital Gold was the radio station to have the greatest influence on him in his younger years. Jonathan Pearce, now of Match of the Day fame, launched a sports show on the station back in 1987 which proved to be a ground-breaking step in football commentary. The likes of Steve Wilson and Rob Wotton joined Pearce in the early days of the show, while it also launched the careers for the the following generation of sports reporters including Adam Leventhal, Andy Burton and Taphouse himself.
“By today’s standards, it was probably slightly cheesy with scripted lines and memorable sound bites that they used over and over again,” he said.
“It is exactly what we’re told not to do now, but it was something a little bit different and, for me, that was all I listened to. All the guys that were on it are now very much in the industry.
“It was such an important and ground-breaking radio show that was a stepping stone for so many people, and I just couldn’t believe that I managed to get myself on that show having listened to it for so long.”
Taphouse believes the industry has changed significantly since he launched his career on Capital Gold. The sprawling availability of televised football in the 21st century means that radio commentary is not something many young people would even consider.
“People in their late teens are so used to streaming, or finding a feed online, that listening online is such a poor second best for them,” Taphouse noted.
“The way we consume media now is just so different and I think for a lot of young people its not even on their radar. I grew up listening to football and it would be amazing. It’s much more intimate and you hear so much more from the commentators, to the point you actually feel like you know them.”
But the latest signs suggest that radio commentary remains popular with the public. Last season’s Champions League semi-finals involving Liverpool and Tottenham boasted sky-high listener figures on BBC Radio 5 Live and the station earned wide acclaim for its coverage of the matches. A key contributing factor to this is the fact that televised Champions League action is behind a paywall on BT Sport, but Taphouse thinks radio still holds an important currency in the modern media market through its unique appeal as an audio-only medium.
“I think UEFA are very disappointed with the audience figures on BT because it’s obviously not a channel that an enormous number of people have,” he said.
“But on radio, you also have that intimacy and relationship between the audience and you and your co-commentator. I think people still like that side of it.
“Radio is never going to die because there will always be that market. Also, there’s always going to be people in their cars when matches are on so radio will be the best way, and the only way to follow the game.”
The functionality of radio means it is not going anywhere for the moment. But Taphouse’s comments reflect the belief of those who grew up with it that radio’s unique audio-focused nature means that it should have strong appeal in its own right, and not merely a second-best option. The expansion of digitalism means televised football has never been more accessible, so the onus is now on the likes of BBC Radio 5 Live and talkSPORT to convince a football-frenzied generation that radio has the ability to paint a picture like no other.
Featured Photograph/Gary Taphouse