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The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 1 - Dr. Neil Hillman

It is 4:15am on a Saturday morning as I start to write this; and usually at this time during the football season, I am dressing quietly in the dark so as not to disturb my sleeping wife; memorising the order that I laid out my clothes the night before: in late summer it’s underpants, t-shirt, overshirt, socks, jeans and a jumper (the order is important when you’re dressing with the lights off, on the landing, with the items laid left to right over the banister rail). In winter, the layer-count will go up by one with the addition of thermal undergarments. My light, fleecy undercoat, my heavier waterproof overcoat and my work boots remain ready for such days in my car.

I am a freelance sound engineer and if I am lucky, at weekends, I’ll leave my week-day audio post-production studio to work on sports Outside Broadcasts. Well, I used to. 

I find myself awake – wide awake – this Saturday morning through habit and a strange, seasonal muscle-memory, body clock kind of thing that ensures that at this time of year, on this day of the week, I consistently wake moments before two separate alarms are due to go off.

On any Saturday morning, hundreds of freelance television technicians will be as busy as worker ants doing this, too: the camera crews who assemble the large camera rigs and frame the shots, the vision engineers who control the output of their cameras, the EVS slow-motion replay operators, the set hands who build the green-screen virtual studio; as well as the sound technicians who rig the microphones around the pitch and equip the commentary positions, the pre- and post-match reporter’s position and the studio and pitch-side presentation positions. All of us will have driven for two or three hours, sometimes more, up and down the nation’s motorways to reach a location by the requisite ‘five hours before kick-off’ time on the call sheet.

For a midday televised match, that means we are on site by 7am; which for me living in Birmingham, means a 4am start for a game at Swansea or Southampton; or a more leisurely 5am start for a Liverpool or Manchester Premier League game. There are Premiership teams literally just down the road from me: Aston Villa is only 10 minutes away; and 30 minutes gets me to Wolverhampton Wanderers. But I never get booked for those games. Instead, you will probably find that my colleagues have travelled from Carlisle, or maybe Bradford or Newcastle to cover those games. Outside Broadcasts, you see, is like a crocodile. It needs feeding regularly with pieces of meat and it has absolutely no concern where the meat comes from. So the logic of Outside Broadcasts logistics, and indeed the relationship between the company and the freelancer, is thus: we need a person – any person – to do this job. Your name has come up, are you available?

The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 2 - Dr. Neil Hillman
Turf Moor, Burnley FC

But it’s not just the crocodile that’s hungry: the freelance Outside Broadcast world is as competitive as any jungle. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve received an e-mail offering me a job and even hitting reply immediately has meant not getting it because someone else answered sooner; similarly with phone calls – reply straight away to a missed call and the work has gone to the next person on the list. It’s a situation that suits the Outside Broadcast companies well: they have the luxury of an over-supply of highly skilled and highly compliant workers. Except at Christmas and New Year. Traditionally, football is played on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day; and equally traditionally, it’s the time the ‘regular’ freelancers take time off to be with their families. So that’s when personal calls come in rather than emails, and the booking schedulers become warm, friendly voices that you rarely otherwise get to hear. (The season before Covid – ‘1 BC’ – I stayed up most of the night on Christmas Day in the Queen Elizabeth hospital, sitting alongside my Mother who had suffered a stroke at our yuletide dinner table; then drove from Birmingham to Brighton FC in the early hours for the Boxing Day game I’d taken a booking for. Utter madness on my part.)

But the money makes up for it, right? Well, yes it does, which is why there is such an over-supply of eager, willing workers. A day’s pay for an Outside Broadcast technician working on Premier League football is set by Sky at £380 per day. However long that day is, and however many miles you drive. So a typical day could be: drive 3 hours for a 7am start, work (which usually finishes four hours after kick-off), then drive home for another 3 hours. That’s normally a 15 hour day minimum; and if you take off £50 for fuel and associated costs, it equates to £22 per hour. (Stop overnight somewhere before the game and you could be looking at paying anything up to £90 a night; bringing the hourly rate down to £16, and compounded by a potential loss of similarly paid work the day before and / or the day after.)

The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 3 - Dr. Neil Hillman
Anfield, Liverpool FC

It is, by any stretch of the imagination, work that is better remunerated and infinitely more interesting than, say, working the checkout at a supermarket or pulling pints in a pub; but in fairness, so it should be: the technicians who work on live Outside Broadcasts will have worked hard to gain the required underpinning knowledge, and they each carry a massive responsibility for the quality and uninterrupted delivery of the programme; and for the most part, they are dedicated to continually maintaining and developing their skills. Let’s also not forget that the product they are servicing – English League football – is generating billions of pounds of revenue as it is distributed all over the world.

For sound operators, sound technicians and sound engineers (the difference is more than just a title, by the way) recent changes in operational planning, execution and processes have represented either a challenge or an opportunity to grow, depending on your philosophy: personally, I have thoroughly enjoyed the way sound engineering now embraces what was once considered an I.T. networking province (and networked audio specialist Audinate’s Dante Level 1, 2 and 3 certification is a useful benchmark for differentiating between a sound operator, a sound technician and a sound engineer).

Inevitably, Covid-19 managed to change everything; and this is how things changed for me.

Live sport stopped and my last football match – indeed, my last paid work – was on March 22nd, 2020. Unable to furlough even though I run a Limited Company (the large Outside Broadcast company I subcontracted to will not engage anyone who is not a Limited Company; to the extent that they even withheld payments from workers who had completed engagements for them but had failed to set-up a Limited Company in time for the company’s self-imposed February 2020 cut-off date), I was also ineligible for Universal Credit; and so it was that my two pillars of income disappeared overnight: audio post-production and sports Outside Broadcasts.

I was not alone in not receiving any government support, of course; thousands of fellow workers in film and television have inexplicably faced similar ‘technically complex’ hurdles laid very carefully, in an uncharacteristically efficient way, by an uncaring and wilfully unhelpful HMRC.

With no income whatsoever, the news of the re-introduction of football in June – three months after I had last earned any money, and with no government support in between times – gave me the hope of a lifeline; bolstered by a promise from the Outside Broadcast company I most regularly worked for (contained in a rousing message-to-the-troops e-mail), informing us that work would be shared fairly between the freelancers.

Sadly, this proved to be as empty as the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s promise that ‘no one would be left behind’.

The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 6 - Dr. Neil Hillman
Etihad stadium, Manchester City FC

Ahead of receiving the routine Excel spreadsheet detailing the following month’s matches to be covered, to which freelancers add their availability in the hope of being booked, came a request to list the football grounds we would be prepared to travel to and from in one day, on the understanding that no overnight accommodation in a hotel could be factored in. Which I thought was a rather sensible approach: after all, if we were all only travelling a maximum radius of two hours from our homes, that was a greener and altogether more efficient way to deploy us, and it kept us closer to home. In total, a healthy number of 14 football grounds met this criteria for me, covering both Premiership and Championship clubs.

Therefore, in hope, I filled in the first month’s spreadsheet: I was able to cover 14 games across the English Premier League (EPL) and the English Football League (EFL). To even get one a week – 4 games – would have been mighty handy; but I drew a blank. Similarly so the following month, and the month after that. In total, I offered my services for 51 games between the re-start and the end of the season. All without a result. And to add to my bewilderment, I spoke to a friend who was rigging the day before a match, a considerable distance from his home. He is young and keen and I was worried he might be sleeping in his car, as surely the no-hotel rule was in place. ‘Oh no’, he cheerfully replied ‘we’ve been staying in hotels since the re-start.’

The e-mail I wrote to the Outside Broadcast company, after the final game of the season had been played and I knew that all coverage had ceased until the start of the new season in September, was considered, polite, but it did express my honest disappointment. It also requested an honest response to a couple of awkward questions, i.e. why say you’ll share the work equally, when clearly a selected group of freelancers ended up with highly lucrative pay-days from the number of games they were covering each month? (no, there isn’t a ‘bubble’ approach to crewing Outside Broadcasts) and given the years I had worked for the company as a freelancer, in all kinds of sound roles from mixing an event to placing microphones around the pitch, what did this tell me about the kind of relationship that we actually had? (I’m afraid I did also add ‘remember those Boxing Day’s and New Years Day’s games I always turned up for, when your more regular suppliers were unavailable?’)

Well, I did receive a response, and not in the way I imagined. The September Premier League availability sheet was sent out this week. So was the Championship availability sheet; but not to my in-box. Because I’ve been taken off the circulation list for both.

There’s an old business adage that says ‘If you swim with sharks, don’t complain when you get bitten’, so I can’t complain. But sometimes, working on Outside Broadcasts sure is like being part of a community that Homer Simpson might disparagingly describe as ‘Carny folk’.

I also know that this is simply part and parcel of freelance life and I really shouldn’t take it personally; being dropped for no good reason about the way that you do your job happens all the time. But I won’t lie; it hurts. I love my work, I take great pride in my work – and on a more fundamental level – I’m still too young to retire, even if I wanted to (which I don’t). I have also never lost the thrill and sense of privilege of being paid to watch the sport I love.

The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 4 - Dr. Neil Hillman
Southend United v Sunderland – rain on the commentary gantry affected commentary notes…

The irony of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s triumphant proclamation ‘You have not be forgotten, you will not be left behind, we are all in this together’ has left a long-lingering and bitter taste in the mouths of many; and it may yet come back to haunt him, as previous Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s sweeping assurance of ‘We’re all in this together’ did; uttered as he introduced swingeing austerity measures that turned out to mostly impact those in society least able to afford them. Patently we weren’t all in the same boat, and although a privileged few managed to get safely onboard with George, and have stayed comfortably dry once again with Rishi, many of those manning the lifeboats that could have aided those cast adrift, chose instead to use the situation as a weeding-out process for those who didn’t – or don’t – suit their new commercial needs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of the casualties have been experienced practitioners who can command and justify a full market rate.

So whilst I’m calling-out my sector (the film and television industry is a place where the hirer seemingly knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing) for the way in which we have already seen production companies driving down their crewing costs, thanks to the chronic over-supply and financial desperation of crew caused by Covid, let’s not forget that there are 3 million other tiny Limited Company owners who overnight also found themselves excluded from any form of economic support, and who will say to you ‘this is my truth, what’s yours?’

If business – like sport – actually reflects life, then adversity is not so much character forming for the ‘have nots’, instead it is more character revealing about the ‘haves’; and the character of many organisations during this particular, so-called ‘once-in-a-generation’ social and economic crisis (this is actually my third, if I count the 1990 recession, the 2008 global financial crisis and now Coronavirus) has been found wanting; and quite rightly in my opinion, these companies have been exposed and shamed for their calculating and uncaring attitude towards their employees and suppliers.

The late, great football manager Brian Clough is famous for providing a pithy quote for almost any occasion, but it’s telling that his biography was entitled ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’; an observation he would regularly make. And in my game, I get that. I really do.

Entertainment – like nature – abhors a vacuum, and I’m sure that eventually I will return to profit by finding a use for my skills and experience somewhere else, on something else, related to my areas of interest in sound. But for now, this continues to be my Coronavirus journey; and when the new football season kicks-off on the 12th of September 2020, for the first time in years and years, I’m unlikely to be playing a part.

Post-script – A booking: December 16th 2020!

A full 269 days after my last Outside Broadcast on March 22nd at Leicester City, where a packed crowd saw Manchester City beat them by a single goal in the pouring rain, I found myself in a spectatorless, Covid-compliant King Power stadium for Leicester’s game against Everton, accompanied once more by torrential rain and another defeat for the home side.

Whilst I’d not exactly been slowly decaying at home like a latterday Miss Havisham, sitting in warm and waterproof Outside Broadcast clothing throughout the summer and autumn, waiting expectantly for telephone calls and bookings that never arrived, during that time it did take all of my personal development work not to feel let down, or to take it personally. Instead, with the glut of Premiership games in the build-up towards Christmas resulting in more fixtures being televised by new-kids-on-the-block Amazon Prime, one of the OB company’s crewing schedulers obviously scrolled further down their list of freelancers who are ready to repond at a moment’s notice. The mouse hovered over my name, and this time, I got lucky. But it wasn’t the company I’d serviced for many years before who contacted me; it was a previous, occasional client. My pointed e-mail of the summer clearly did me no favours… Or maybe it just highlighted the true nature of our commitment to each other.

The ugly side of The Beautiful Game. - Ugly 5 - Dr. Neil Hillman

Make no mistake, it was wonderful to be back covering a game and I was grateful to invoice the £380 fee; but what it has undoubtedly highlighted is the unreliable, unpredictable and ultimately unsustainable nature that freelance television work has calculatingly, and inexorably, descended into.

As exciting as swimming with sharks is, experience tells me that really, it’s just too inherently dangerous an occupation for me to now pin any hopes of a long-term future on.

New year, new pastures? I think so. Watch this space.

© Neil Hillman, 2020.

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Dr. Neil Hillman MPSE

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I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

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