Did One Game Change the Whole Commercial Potential of Football?


It’s the 26th May 1989, and English football is at an all time low. The hooliganism years of the 70s and 80s are still fresh in the minds of everyone and added to that football tragedies at Heysel in 1985, the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium also in 1985, and only six weeks earlier the devastating Hillsborough disaster meant English football wasn’t in a great state. However, one thing still had to be decided in the 1988-1989 Division One season, and that was the league championship.

Because of the Hillsborough disaster the fixture between the two title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal had to be rescheduled to the evening of the 26th May, which was a Friday night. The season had already finished, the FA Cup had been won by Liverpool the previous week and they were on the brink of a momentous double. But standing in their way was Arsenal who could snatch the title away from Liverpool. The equation was pretty simple. Arsenal had to go to Anfield and win by two clear goals to secure the championship…2-0, 3-1, 4-2…you get the idea! 

What made the evening even more special was that the game was being shown live to the nation on ITV, who had the broadcasting rights to show live top division matches from 1988 to 1992. Having a live match on TV back then was pretty much a luxury, compared to today where it seems there’s a game live everyday from any league or country in the world. 

ITV reported that eight million people tuned in to watch the match with thousands more going to switch on in the second half. As the game’s on ITV there’s the long commercial breaks which for any advertiser during the game is like gold dust, showing your brand to not far off ten million viewers back then wasn’t that common. However, little did those advertisers know how lucrative those commercial slots were going to be. Also the sponsors of the league, Barclays, when they signed the deal to sponsor the league wouldn’t have imagined how much their brand would be exposed to the millions watching on TV and at the game. 

Earlier that day it was reported that the satellite channel BSkyB, run by Rupert Murdoch, was going to launch in the next year…something which was going to change the face of football further.

But now to the game which before it even started was going to be historic no matter what the outcome, as rarely do two title rivals meet on the final day for a winner takes all cup style game. The game begins and is 0-0 at half-time, but just after the second half Arsenal get a free kick and Alan Smith heads the gunners into the lead, Arsenal lead 1-0. Although winning 1-0 won’t be enough to win the championship. The game continues and no team can score the next crucial goal and as we head into stoppage time it’s still 1-0 and looks like Arsenal will heroically win but leave without the trophy. 

Back in the old days of classic football there wasn’t really any time added on, but due to an injury to Kevin Richardson the game goes past the 90th minute mark. John Barnes runs down the touchline and instead of going to the corner flag tries to go through the Arsenal defence to get the equalising goal, but is tackled. And I’ll now let the legendary commentator Brian Moore talk you through the closing stages…

“Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it’s up for grabs now! Thomas! Right at the end! An unbelievable climax to the league season”. 

And that’s it, Arsenal score with the last kick of the last game of the season and snatch the title away from Liverpool to win 2-0 in the most dramatic finish ever to a English top division season. But for the millions watching on TV they’ve seen a bit of history and ITV’s coverage sees an all time record audience for a domestic football match. More importantly those that watched and enjoyed the match are more than likely to watch again or begin visiting their favourite clubs ground. For ITV it was a clear sign that live football has a future and if you offer them the chance to watch it, they will, and love it. Obviously not every game will have that dramatic nature to it, but it proves that ITV should show more games in the next three years of their broadcasting deal, which they duly did. 

Just over a year later and England reach the semi-finals of Italia 90 and with the release of the Taylor Report in 1990 about how to make stadiums safer, English football was starting to go on the up again.

Most significantly in 1992 the Premier League was launched and Sky invested £304 million for exclusive TV rights. As the years progress and more money is pumped into the league from TV broadcasters, sponsors, investors and commercial businesses the value of the Premier League gets higher and higher. The global reach to billions all over the world only makes the Premier League even more lucrative. The current UK TV rights held by Sky Sports and BT Sport are astonishingly valued at £3 billion! Plus all the global rights! This injection of money has helped the game so much to improve stadiums, facilities, the ability to buy the best players and create a global presence for clubs all over the world. 

However, if it wasn’t for one game that enticed millions to watch and for commercial partners to untap the huge revenue potential of live football, would the Premier League be the richest league in the world?

My view is the game in 1989 showed businesses and the public alike that live football was a great spectacle with a commercial opportunity to invest in it. As a result this definitely culminated in the renaissance of English football that night and gave it such a bright commercial future. 

Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment 🙂