In the last twenty years or so the world has undergone an information revolution. Where once obscure facts and details were the domain of pallid librarians and dusty card indexes, the advent of the internet and mobile technology has put such information just a few clicks away and handily stored in our pockets.
Much of the world has progressed in line with this revolution. Academia and Government are almost unrecognisable from what they were just a quarter of a century ago, whilst whole new industries have risen (and a few fallen as well) as public demand for increased online information, and social interaction.
This is true of the sports world as well. The betting industry, for example, has exploded now that people can place a bet from their own home rather than having to traipse down to a dingy, smoky, high street shop.
But the world of football commentary has managed to keep its head stubbornly in the sand as the world around it has transformed. And the result of this pig-headedness is a sport, particularly in the case of the Premier League, which is opening up new revenue streams and global marketplaces, and has become one of the country’s greatest exports and proudest assets, yet which is delivered into our living rooms, at a considerable cost, is an almost quaintly outdated way.
Yes there have been efforts at innovation over the years. Andy Townsends infamous ‘tactics truck’ leaps to mind as the short-lived experiments on Sky Sports with ideas like ‘Fanzine’ and ‘Player-Cam’, but broadly speaking, the way we watch a football match today is the same as it was prior to the digital age.
Curiously, the commentators tasked with bringing the game to life, are also broadly speaking the same disembodied voices we were listening to a quarter of a century ago as well, and herein lies the crux of the problem. Because the facts, statistics, and weary clichés they are trawling out during a game, are broadly the same ones too.
But people these days expect more. They expect more facts and figures, better statistics, instant opinions from people whose views count, and detailed analysis of the key events.
The broadcast formats we are currently lumbered with simply cannot offer all of that. Live match coverage simply does not give commentators or pundits the chance to expound on an issue in detail or retrieve additional facts and figures. They look at the goals, the shots, and the controversial decisions. This can never tell you the whole story about the intense tactical battle that is a game of top level professional football these days.
But to look at the social media and other output of many commentators and pundits, you can be pretty sure that even if the format enabled it, they wouldn’t have much more to say. Most use Twitter to trawl out the same limited drivel they spout on the airways, whilst programmes such as BBC Radio 5Live’s 606 see various commentators sinking down to the level of the irate drunken fan calling in after his team just lost heavily. Alan Green is probably the worst culprit here, although Stan Collymore runs him close.
Print journalists though have managed to embrace the age of information far more successfully, although the popularity of newspaper websites does offer them much greater scope for expounding on events and offering analysis.
The Guardian probably led the way with its witty live coverage of games online, interspersed with opinions from the writer, reader’s emails and tweets, and various other piece of information and media. Most other newspapers, and indeed some broadcaster’s websites, now offer a similar service.
They have also offered a platform to journalists who offer a whole lot more than the same tired analysis and anecdotes. The pick of these is probably Jonathan Wilson, a regular contributor to the Guardian and ESPN as well as other more innovative sites such as the Bleacher Report, almost everything Wilson writes is from a different angle.
As well being an expert on football from less document leagues around the world, particularly Eastern Europe and Africa, Wilson is also an expert on tactics, having penned several books on the subject, and the level of analysis he can bring to a match takes sports journalism to a new level, and open readers eyes to a side of the game they are rarely exposed to.
His online and print magazine, the Blizzard, offers lengthy and irreverent articles on all manner of football-related issues, and is a must-read for all true lovers of the game.
He has remoulded the template for sports journalist in the UK, and a handful of others have gone along with him.
But back in the world of broadcast commentary, it still feels like a nostalgic look into times gone by. A glance at twitter during coverage of a game on most channels, but certainly the terrestrial ones will show you the depth of vitriol felt by many at the standard of commentary.
People are expecting more, and unless the broadcasters can successfully bring their formats, and their commentators into the twenty-first century, people will increasingly look to social media and other outlets for their fix.
Skipping the half time punditry to make a cup of tea is rapidly going to the next level.