Thirty years of the Premier League: football’s journey from outlaw pursuit to digital juggernaut

In another timeline, a version of the present where things had turned out differently on the gore-soaked fields of the satellite broadcast wars in the summer of 1990, Britain might by now be three decades into its great, transformative opera boom.

In this version of events, sparked by British Satellite Broadcasting’s decisive victory over the long-forgotten “Sky TV”, the nation has spent the years since in thrall to BSB’s relentless, beautifully packaged operatic programming – to the extent all other human activity now seems subservient to the national obsession with rolling 24-hour bel canto, Super Saturday chamber music, the multimillion-pound conductor transfer roundabout.

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There are, of course, problems even here. The obsession with celebrity tenors. Public outrage over singers’ pay. The fear elite opera has lost touch with its grassroots, not to mention the weaponising of Big Opera by petro-states eager to launder their reputations.

But still that juggernaut keeps rolling, the billion-dollar recital deals, the kids in replica capes and gloves in every city centre; albeit with talk now of a breakaway 18th-century classical Super Opera League, sparking questions in parliament, marches from fans, protest flares fired from between the buttock cheeks of the opera ultras.

Except, of course, it didn’t play out like that. Instead BSB, with its Mozart nights and Tosca beanos, allowed Sky to merge it out of existence, a victory mitigated only by the short-lived adoption of the name BSkyB, an act of friendship up there with the bit in the Star Wars prequels where stormtroopers are spotted patrolling the streets whistling like bobbies on the beat, pretending to be nice.

From that point Sky filled the skies. And, of course, it was football that became the commercial lever, the sales pitch, the gateway drug, crowding out almost every other form of shared public entertainment in the three decades since.

Rupert Murdoch had been badly burned by his new venture up to that point, with Sky’s weekly £10m losses threatening the very future of News International. At one point Murdoch had been reduced to personally turning up at the door of Sky’s millionth customer, posing awkwardly in an oversized raincoat, with a massive clanky gunmetal dish under one arm, trying to smile along with the baffled-looking family dragged from their teatime sofa by this gloom-ridden billionaire.

By now football had been settled on as the key ingredient, Murdoch detecting with immaculate populist instincts that this oddly moreish substance was ripe to be monetised. Skynet duly went active on 18 May 1992 with the purchase of the first ever Premier League broadcast rights package for £304m. At which point the sniper sights start to narrow, the radar locks on, and the journey from there to here begins in earnest.

It was 30 years ago, almost exactly, that Richard Keys told the band to play: 15 August 1992 saw the broadcast of Sports Saturday, followed the next day by Super Sunday and the day after that by a first Monday Night Football, the foundations of that great suspension bridge to the future concreted into the ocean bed over a single weekend.

In the years since football has turned itself inside-out for television, splayed and wriggling on the operating table saying, take my spleen, take my heart, make me over again. The game has been altered on many levels by the money that has flowed into the top tier. Essentially football has been transformed from a vaguely outlaw pursuit, staged in rusting post-industrial grounds, stigmatised by disorder and social problems, to a catered experience, a luxury brand, so essential to the national consumer experience that the government summoned it back into existence during the pandemic lockdown as an essential item, up there with food, medicine and daily power-walks.

It has been a remarkably sure-footed journey to this point, from that opening Alive and Kicking-soundtracked ad campaign, with its sense of something being born, emerging bright eyed and glistening into the world: Peter Reid and John Wark in frightening closeup, glimpses of David Seaman’s white mansion, slightly too many shots of Andy Ritchie.

One of the early Sky Football idents featured the usual swooshing graphics plus an unseen choir of people chanting “Here we go here we go here we go here we go THIS IS IT!”, sounding like the kind of murderous religious sect that pops up in action adventure movies of the 1980s, eating live squirrel hearts and worshipping the Etruscan sun god. And there was something cult-like about those early days, something priapically insistent, Keys in lemon yellow sports jacket, blazing with a kind of light entertainment will to power.

This was in many ways the best of the Sky-era Premier League, those early rough-cut days, with the whole thing wreathed in destiny, a new era launched out of the old industrial wreckage like some beaming property magnate pausing for the cameras before pressing the dynamite plunger on a career-defining sink estate redevelopment.

Ten days into the first season Eric Cantona scored a hat-trick for Leeds United against Spurs, looking lithe and luminous, a visitor from outer space and it felt in that moment as though this thing was unstoppable, a product of all those wider forces: deregulation, the new leisure economy, the plastic prosperity of the early 1990s. History was on its side. The Premier League had become inevitable.

Which it was, and also wasn’t. The reason for dwelling on the dishes and the transponders is that these were the real key. Football was simply the product.

But the entire enterprise was driven by technology, and by the urge to exploit new ways of consuming, an early adopter version of the digital future.

As long ago as 1979 Harold Wilson had warned that the UK was about to undergo “a foreign cultural invasion through the satellite”. It arrived six years later via the offering up of broadcast licences, which were initially hummed and hawed over by the BBC, who decided the cost was prohibitive. Murdoch launched his own service via the Luxembourg-based Astra satellite, a subsidiary benefit for the UK of EU membership, and a decisive foot in the door for Sky.

Also key to all this, and also a hardware issue, was the presence of Alan Sugar in the room at the rights sale meeting as Tottenham chairman. Sugar was also part of Amstrad, which would manufacture the dishes if Sky secured the rights. “Blow them out of the water,” Sugar may or may not have told Sky’s executives, barking into his phone, so the story goes, in the hotel lobby outside the meeting room. Either way, the blowing away happened. And the waters have never been the same since.

Newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch (left) and millionaire businessman Alan Sugar hold a model of the Astra Satellite at a November 1988 London press conference, where Murdoch announced he had signed a 10-year lease for three new satellite channels. Mr Sugar’s Amstrad company is to manufacture a satellite dish and receiver aimed at the mass market
Rupert Murdoch (left) and businessman Alan Sugar hold a model of the Astra satellite in a significant moment leading to the birth of the Premier League. Photograph: PA

The Premier League has come and gone in mini-eras. It arrived in earnest in 1995-96 with the great Newcastle title collapse season: the beauty of that pursuit, of Kevin Keegan in headphones talking, tearfully, about how he’s kept quiet about this, and with the fans placed for the first time centre stage, picked out by the match-day director, their joy and anguish a part of the spectacle.

Manchester United dominated those founding years, a renascent super club in a city enjoying a post-industrial boom, with enough flash and edge to launch this product. Wenger-era Arsenal seemed to express something about this new world too, the perfect free-market team, playing frictionless Wenger-ball in a stadium constructed to join the Euro leisure tourist trail. Roman Abramovich brought oligarchical super-investment. Manchester City have dominated the last decade, a club powered for the first time by the endlessly giving hand of a politically motivated nation state.

And by now the Premier League has reached a state of apparently unsurpassable commercial success. Broadcast income is set to hit £10bn over the next three seasons. The Premier League is, or was until the IPL announced its own jaw-dropping TV rights deal, the richest sporting league in the world. There is no real competition in football now. Denuded of its Messi-Ronaldo godhead La Liga is no longer edging closer. The English top tier sucks in expertise, wealth, talent, eyeballs, bandwidth from every other league in the world. It can look, if you only see the headline figures, as though this supremacy is unassailable. Here we go, here we go, here we go. And yes, this is indeed it.

Manchester City captain Fernandinho lifts the Premier League trophy after their triumph in the 2021/22 season
Manchester City have dominated the past decade after being powered by a politically motivated nation state. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Except, for all the blaring certainties, this was never intended to be the new breakaway world’s final form. Nothing has actually been changed here, no new model created. All that has really happened over those three decades is the same thing drenched in heat and light, injected with adrenaline, zeros added. The most outstanding achievement of the Premier League to date is to shift its wage bill from an initial £97.1m for 22 clubs, to a state where Cristiano Ronaldo earns half a million pounds a week all on his own just for being famous and disaffected on the periphery.

Otherwise the product is glossed rather than altered. The good parts are obvious enough. The quality, availability and production are all breathtakingly good. Against this we have stratification, the paring back of success on the field to a small cartel of clubs. Supporters have been marginalised, grassroots disconnected and excluded from the feast. There are fears over the debt bomb, over clubs getting high on this precarious supply of income. But still that jerry-built wheel, cranked up in a rush in the summer of 1992, keeps on turning.

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Perhaps this can simply go on forever? Except of course it is in the nature of such a model to eat itself. The league is robustly and unapologetically a profit machine, and like every model predicated on greed and growth, it must take ever larger mouthfuls to survive happily. The origins story was about clubs outgrowing the nationalised model of football. The story of what happens next will be globalisation, the elite wanting more, the tip of the spaceship detaching.

Thirty years is a lifespan for this thing. And once again it is tech that will drive the next stage. If the first great revolution was a shot at new markets, consumer freedom, set-top boxes, it was still based ultimately in geography and the old world. This is no longer necessarily the case.

Football is basically just moving shapes on a screen now, a digital product, a dopamine hit across the internet, there to be consumed as part of a wider fandom. Why should this thing be tied to place, or tradition or to rules that stifle profit? There has been resistance so far. But who knows how the Super League hijack would have played out had Brexit not given Boris Johnson the chance to scarecrow about pretending to be a man of the people; or had it not been hamstrung by the most inept PR campaign in the history of rich people not understanding how other humans think and feel.

Chelsea fans protest outside Stamford Bridge in April 2021 protesting against attempts to form a new European Super League
The Super League hijack was hamstrung by the most inept PR campaign of rich people failing to understand supporters. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

Meanwhile the model is still hungry. This thing was built out of floating chunks of metal in the sky. It already feels old. We have moved on from the dish, the TV set, the football pub. The thing that is coming will be constantly present, and repackaged to fit the digital world. How will that look? Who will own it? How long before a floating breakaway league is streaming its own content, liberated from the old cobwebbed structures of kick-off times, ring roads, stadiums, train fares, TV listings, all of it ready to be pushed aside like an outdated combine harvester.

Change will surely come at some point. The next few years will tell us if the current pitch of dominance is peak Premier League, or another false summit in that ascent. In the meantime, for all its garish superlatives, for all the casualties along the way, and the sense of something gorging itself towards a state of unravelling, it has been undeniably glorious.