The decision to select every Manchester United FA Cup tie for live broadcast has been described as "farcical" by one of the smaller clubs to have missed out in this weekend's fourth round.
Since 2005, when United won 2-0 at Exeter City in a third round replay after the then Conference club had wrung a 0-0 draw from Old Trafford, FA Cup ties played by United have been selected for live broadcast. That run will continue in Saturday evening's game against Fulham at Old Trafford.
When the BBC had the FA Cup rights, the corporation showed United live 18 times between 2005 and 2008, Sky showing United's four other ties. Since ITV won the rights beginning in 2009-10, United have always been chosen for live broadcast.
That run of matches has sent a steady stream of the FA Cup's financial distributions United's way, forming a small part of its £396m income in 2011-12, by far the highest in English football. The fee to each club broadcast live in the fourth round this season is £135,850, less than the weekly wage for one top United player, but gold dust to smaller clubs that have made it this far in the competition.
"When you put it like that it is farcical," said John Harris, the chief executive of Macclesfield Town, who is disappointed the Conference club were not selected for live coverage of their home tie against Wigan Athletic. "When we beat Cardiff City here in the third round, the scenes at our stadium were magnificent and a giant-killing could be on the cards again. No disrespect, but is Manchester United playing Fulham more attractive to a football purist?
"For us, that money, £135,000, would be massive, it would save our season after relegation to the Conference, which was a huge blow. If David Gill [United's chief executive] is feeling generous one morning and wants to divert that money down the A34 to Macclesfield, it would be very welcome."
A United spokesman did not respond to that suggestion but pointed out that the FA Cup broadcasters choose United largely because the club draws a large audience. "We understand the rationale for our games being chosen," he said. "It also allows many more of our fans to see the matches than would otherwise be the case."
The fact is United are a prime draw. ITV pointed to the viewing figures in earlier rounds, when the bitter MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon match attracted a 15% share of viewers; Brighton v Newcastle was watched by 2.1m people, a 21% share, while United's tie away at West Ham United drew 4.9m viewers for a 5.30pm kick-off, 24% of the TV audience.
ITV and ESPN emphasised their commitment to the FA Cup's appealing stories and efforts of lower division clubs. "While Manchester United are clearly always an attractive proposition because of the audience they attract, the scope of our coverage encompasses the full breadth of FA Cup action," an ITV spokesman said.
ESPN pointed out that since beginning their coverage in the 2010-11 season, the US owned broadcaster has shown 69 different clubs live, the large majority from outside the Premier League. "Telling the unique stories of the tournament has always been at the heart of our FA Cup coverage," an ESPN spokesman said. "As a media company, we do have to balance that with commercial aspects."
The FA emphasises that apart from distributions to individual clubs and prize money, its income is spent on the wider development of the game.
Economics underpins United's constant selection, their live matches enabling broadcasters to sell advertising, and pay-TV subscriptions, so boosting the money they are prepared to pay the FA for the rights. ESPN paid a reported £60m over four years for FA Cup coverage after Setanta's collapse; ITV are in the first year of a two-year £90m deal to show FA Cup and England matches.
For all the magic of the competition, if United beat Fulham, it is one of the FA Cup's safest bets that United's match in the next round, whoever they draw, will be live on TV.