Journey into unknown with new football system

By Keir Radnedge
The new Premier League season begins with a journey into the unknown for the media. It is not a question of whether Manchester United can cope without Cristiano Ronaldo or whether Manchester City’s big spending will pay off. More important, though far less headline-friendly, is whether newspapers can put their reporters into the 20 Premier League clubs’ press boxes.

Uncertainty has been aroused through patchy implementation by clubs of an online match accreditation system. This has been devised at the behest of Football DataCo which garners responsibility, among other things, for overseeing administration of a range of issues impinging on the media.

Editors, sports desk administrators and journalists have become familiar with online accreditation systems for international football.

The quirks of the FA’s system are now largely understood by England match applicants; FIFA’s World Cup version worked efficiently in 2006 in Germany and at the Confederations Cup this past June in South Africa; UEFA’s equivalent worked adequately at Euro 2008 but is notoriously clunky and unbelievably user-unfriendly.

Football DataCo did not want such snags as its own version evolved out of the web-based administration system which links the football web within Premier and Football Leagues. The introductory proposal met a mixed media reception at an initial round table in London.

Sports desk administrators welcomed in theory a system which eased the match-order task by removing the need for a shoal of individual faxes.

Editorial directors were more reticent. They believed themselves constrained, by data protection laws, from sharing personal information about journalists with DataCo and were suspicious of ceding administrative control of match applications.

One concern centred on fears — whether justified or not – that DataCo might one day insist on imposing its own unique press access card (with all that it implies) or that this would be conceding too much theoretical ground in the long-running wider argument over whether “rights” to popular public events can be “owned” – and thus controlled – by any corporate entity.

This may appear far distant from the concerns of the deadline-stressed reporter transmitting a match report direct from his or her laptop while at Old Trafford to a Fleet Street editing screen.

However, many editors and journalists see this as overflowing into the freedom of expression sphere.

Further negotiation led to some testing of the system last spring by representatives of national daily and Sunday newspapers and foreign journalists.

Refinements were proposed and, where considered appropriate, incorporated. Setting aside press freedom, items of practical concern remain. These include the setting of application deadlines and the implementation of late assignment changes.

Despite the lack of agreement, DataCo offered clubs the opportunity of introducing the system from the start of the 2009-2010 Premier League campaign.

A handful of clubs notified print media that online was the only means of application; other clubs offered the option of online or fax; and still other clubs decided to stick with the paper certainty of fax.

Whether this state of affairs at the start of a season is satisfactory, helpful or progressive is a matter of opinion.

The internet is here to stay and its complexities are infinite. The immediate challenge is how to manage them in a way which best projects the football message.

This, surely, is the priority for reporter, director, official, sponsor and administrator?

Keir Radnedge is the editor of the SJA Bulletin and chairman of the AIPS football commission

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