Manchester United’s decision to drastically cut the number of photographers allowed into Old Trafford and launch its own picture agency on the web is a disturbing one.
This is taking the commercialisation of football to another level, beyond the massive trade in replica shirts, executive boxes and United’s famed prawn sandwiches.
It means that Man United is entering the media market as a commercial player. The trouble is the club doesn’t seem to see any difference between flogging pictures and selling shirts and other souvenirs from its booming shops around the world. It also ignores the enormous free coverage the press gives football, which in turn makes the sport so attractive to sponsors.
Already perturbing questions are being asked after the opening game of the season at Old Trafford: Are photographers from manunitedpics.com getting privileged and exclusive vantage points at match days? Why were photographers told that, due to the new policy on access at Old Trafford, they could not cover the match from in front of the North Stand or directly behind the goals? Are the Man United stars being encouraged to celebrate in front of their own official photographers? Will Man United stop pictures showing their players in a bad light from going out? There is a strong suspicion that the whole set-up is ripe for media manipulation.
Being so selective in choosing who can cover match days gives United the whip hand over the photographers admitted to its ground. What happens if one of the three big picture agencies, wire services or national newspaper photographers falls out with the club or gets a picture United do not want published? Will their “licences” be withdrawn? There is also the “thin end of the wedge” argument. If the country’s – arguably the world’s – biggest football club can do this, what’s to stop Arsenal and all the others setting up their own picture agencies? With Man United already out of the traps, where does that leave the consultations meant to be going on between the Newspaper Publishers Association and the Premier League this autumn which are aimed at thrashing out an agreement between the top football clubs and the national press without every season starting with a crisis? How can the national press take the Premier League seriously, and consider it is acting in good faith, if its biggest club can act as unilaterally as United has done?