In the late 1960s, the American author and tech seer Richard Brautigan wrote lyrically of “a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony / like pure water / touching clear sky”.
Mr Brautigan called his utopian cyberpastoral poem All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. This week, his meadows will turn into football pitches, as millions in Britain and elsewhere commune with laptops and smartphones to access the first full round of Premier League matches to be streamed online. For the relatively modest sum of £90m, Amazon has purchased the rights to stream 20 Premier League matches each year for three seasons, including Wednesday’s showcase fixtures of Manchester United versus Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool versus Everton. The matches can be watched by anyone who signs up for a free 30-day trial of its Prime service, driving subscriptions at the busiest shopping period of the year. It is a landmark moment of sorts.
Digital disruption has already caused alarm bells to ring in the world of film, where Netflix has been accused of ignoring the traditions and culture of collective viewing at the cinema. The entry of a tech behemoth into the UK football rights market – albeit on a limited, testing-the-water basis – will accelerate a revolution in the way sports are watched. In the US, where digital season passes have been introduced, the number of fans streaming NFL has risen steeply, while television viewing figures and actual attendances have dropped. As more and more sports content is viewed and made available online, the allure of the pay TV model that helped Rupert Murdoch break the media mould with Sky in 1992 is fading. One industry survey found that 52% of sports fans think they might cut their ties with the likes of Sky and BT within the next five years.
The popular attraction of free top-class football is obvious. But sports fans should perhaps be careful what they wish for. In an era when so much of life is mediated through the silos, echo chambers and sometimes lonely rhythms of digital consumption, it would be a great shame if the national game went the same way.
Falling attendances in the US (which have also hit baseball and basketball) suggest that the sheer ease and mobility afforded by on-demand viewing, on a smartphone or tablet, may impact more on live sports audiences than television has done. As insidious is the potential for tech companies and sports organisations to strike a Faustian bargain with a captive audience. In a recent report, Deloitte highlighted the possibility of “leveraging loyalty and customer relationship management data, to tailor experiences to individual fan preferences”. The future may well see sporting organisations, in partnership with big tech providers such as Amazon, harvesting data in return for deals, offers and a customised experience, turning the tribal fan into an individual consumer.
Amazon, condemned yet again this week for its aggressive tax avoidance, has been described as “the everything store”. This embryonic attempt to add English football to its list of products should be greeted with a healthy dose of terrace scepticism.