The summer of youth

This has been a good summer for football and an even better one for youth football. And most, but not all of it has been televised.

This has been a good summer for football and an even better one for youth football. And most, but not all of it has been televised.

FIFA’s Confederations Cup proved an unexpected highlight. The world’s top national teams played with an intensity that belied the notion that the competition’s short history robs it of prestige, producing some memorable matches and some eye-catching individual displays. But, for me, the UEFA U-21 Championship in Israel and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey have been just as enjoyable.

The enjoyment derived from watching younger players lies not just in the quality of their football, which at times during the summer has been on a par with that played by the full national teams, but also in trying to spot the stars of tomorrow. It’s unlikely that there will be many better individual performances this year than Thiago Alcantara’s demolition of Italy in the U-21 final, where the Bayern Munchen-bound FC Barcelona player scored a hat-trick in the 4-2 win. And you won’t see many better goals this year than Lille player Florian Thauvin’s first against Ghana in the semi-final of the U-20 competition. How long before he gets snapped up by a European super power?

Those two tournaments followed the UEFA U-17 Championship in Slovakia in May and the UEFA Women’s U-17 Championship in Nyon in June. Such is the appetite for football in recent years that all major international youth competitions are now televised.

The television rights to the U-21 matches are normally wrapped in with those of the main national team, and usually sold to the main public-service broadcaster or commercial broadcaster across Europe by national federations. The FIFA U-20 rights are usually sold to whoever buys the World Cup.

In parallel with such individual deals, there is also pan-European broadcaster Eurosport, which has been supporting youth football – both men’s and women’s – for years, since long before it became fashionable. For Eurosport, this is far from filler, or ‘wallpaper’ content. Prior to Saturday’s U-20 final between France and Uruguay, millions of people across Europe had followed the tournament on the channel.

The ‘reach’ of the event – the number of people watching 60 non-consecutive seconds during the competition – was 51.8 million, excluding the final. Eurosport’s coverage of the European U-17 championship was seen by 23.5 million viewers. The women’s U-17 final between Poland and Sweden and the third place play-off between Spain and Belgium reached 4.7 million viewers.

The U-21s are an even bigger draw. Live coverage of the Spain v Italy final on Italian state broadcaster Rai was watched by just under four million viewers. In Spain, the match was shown on commercial channel Cuatro, drawing just over three million viewers.

At club level too, youth football is increasingly being televised. Eurosport and ESPN have been the principal broadcast partners of the NextGen tournament, the youth equivalent of the Champions League. In May, the final of the Premier League’s inaugural U-21 league turned out to be a five-goal thriller, with Manchester United’s youngsters edging out Tottenham Hotspur’s by the odd goal.

The U-21 league replaced the old Premier League reserve league and so far has not been televised, which seems a pity. BT has invested in rights and production for non-league Conference football – in the belief that it will find audiences, add subscribers and give itself a handy marketing tool in towns and cities across England. Is there no broadcaster out there that would be interested in televising the future stars of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal et al?

In Italy, one live match per week from Serie A’s U20, or ‘Primavera’ league has been televised for many years, first by Sky Italia and more recently by Sportitalia. Neither of these broadcasters have enjoyed massive audiences for these matches, but there have been benefits which go beyond being able to use names like Juventus and AC Milan in publicity material.

Sky, for example, worked closely with Lega Serie A to use the Primavera coverage as a kind of laboratory for trialling new ideas of presenting the build-up to matches. One such idea was taking the cameras into the dressing rooms before kick-off to sample the pre-match atmosphere and hearing the coach’s pep talk. Some of these ideas have since fed into Sky’s coverage of Serie A.

Arguably a more interesting idea than selling rights to a UK pay-television operator would be to utilise the official league website as a platform to show off the junior league. A dedicated, free-to-view online service offering a mixture of live, highlights and magazine content would undoubtedly appeal to many of the hundreds of millions of Premier League fans around the globe.

There are two obvious objections to the idea. First, that the costs involved might not be covered by direct commercial income. Second, that it would undermine the content offered by the clubs themselves on their own websites or club TV channels. But are they really valid objections? Is it beyond the wit of the assorted media rights experts at the league and its 20 clubs to come up with a matrix of fixtures and hold-back times that would add, rather than subtract value for the clubs and their sponsors?

There are no signs that any coverage beyond that on club outlets is in place for the 2013-14 season, but I believe it will come eventually. In the meantime, fans of youth football have got FIFA’s U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in October to look forward to, where we can keep any eye out for the next generations of Messis, Neymars, Rooneys and Ronaldos.

This is a personal perspective of Frank Dunne, editor of TV Sports Markets.