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When did Oxford United v Sunderland have the potential to change English football forever?!

Sunderland take on Oxford tomorrow - and here Chris Wynn looks back to 1999 when a clash at the Manor Ground had the potential to change the landscape of English football forever!

Oxford v Sunderland general view Getty Images

Saturday 9th February 2018 - Oxford United and Sunderland would play out a fairly predictable 1-1 draw at the Kassam Stadium.

This was not only a fairly insignificant result in terms of the outcome of the season for the two sides involved, but as far as the future of English football was concerned, this would be the equivalent of one atom of Hydrogen in the mass of the observable universe.

Rewind back twenty years to Saturday 27th February 1999 however and the Manor Ground would host another match between the two sides, only this one had the potential to change the landscape of English football forever.

At the time, an ongoing hearing was taking place in the Restrictive Practices Court which the Football League described had the potential to “torpedo” any future broadcasting plans. The outcome of the case would potentially see the court decide on the side of the Office of Fair Trading that clubs should be allowed to negotiate broadcasting deals for themselves and not as a collective.

Oxford v Sunderland general view
Action from Oxford United Vs Sunderland in February 1999
Getty Images

This resulted in experimentation by the broadcasters that began with a cold February Saturday in Oxford. This would be Britain’s first ever pay-per-view (PPV) football match.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Football League at the time, stated:

Pay-per-view is one of the strands of the ever more complex range of platforms available. We have to look at ways of making the most of our TV deals and one of my responsibilities is to generate money for our clubs.

This was the beginning of a PR exercise to convince not only the clubs of the Football League but also those of the Premier League that the future would be brighter if they stuck together. It was surely then not a coincidence that Richard Scudamore was then appointed CEO of the Premier League nine months later.

Football was intrigued whilst looking at the millions made via PPV broadcasting by Wrestling, boxing (the first being Bruno Vs Tyson back in 1996) and Formula One. So it was decided to move our clash to a 6pm kick-off and charge people a one-off fee for viewing rights.

TV football Scudamore BSkyB
Richard Scudamore announcing another deal to improve the coffers of the Premier league
Photo by Peter Jordan - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

But, why Oxford United Vs Sunderland?! Would anyone pay £7.95 the privilege of seeing the action from the Manor Ground?!

A deal was struck that season between the Football League and Sky Sports to screen six, specially selected, games to be moved for PPV at uncommon kick-off times. The Oxford/Sunderland 6pm clash was seen as the perfect mix to gauge consumer engagement. The Manor Ground at the time had a capacity of around 9,500 and so was unable to meet the ticket demands of some the larger clubs.

Sunderland’s huge away following (increased by the success of running away with the title that year) was seen as the perfect opportunity to understand if those unable to get a ticket for the game would shell out £7.95 to watch it in the comfort of their own home. This first dip into PPV was followed a month later with a Second Division game involving Manchester City playing away to Colchester that was selected for similar reasons.

The games selected were also games that would likely sell-out regardless of the broadcasting and so would not impact the game’s attendance and also incomes of the home clubs involved.

Sunderland Team & trophy
Running away with the title made us a perfect choice for the PPV experiment
Photo by Paul Barker - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

As it transpired, in late July 1999, the case of Office of Fair Trading v Premier League “concluded that the restrictions were not unreasonable and not against the public interest”.

This would mean the threat of clubs signing individual broadcasting deals was over and the Premier League could move forward with plans to take the collective to deals they could hardly believe were possible.

In 1998, a report was published that said the Premier League could potentially make around £450 million per year through the introduction of PPV by 2004. In 2001, the Premier League signed a domestic deal worth £1.024 billion to add to the £320 million oversees deal that did not include provision for PPV.

Under Scudamore’s guidance, the deals have exponentially increased to the latest deal that is worth £5.136 billion. The money generated by the broadcasting deals, especially over the last twenty years, have had negatives aspects such as widening the gap between the “have’s” and “have not’s” alongside the positives of increasing the quality of the Premier League, but it’s difficult to argue against the success of the marketing machine that is the Premier League.

It’s all a far cry from an experiment on a cold Saturday in February 1999 to see the money making potential of English football… and oh… it ended 0-0.