The Lord’s work

14718895028_80db023387_zWith the snow gently falling in South London a few weeks ago and another Rooks game coming under threat I looked around for alternatives. Having been away for the past few weeks I thought it might be a good idea to have my Plan B as sitting in front of TV with a warm cup of tea. Scanning the fixtures I noticed that Real Madrid were playing Real Sociedad at 3pm. That’ll do me I thought but then I couldn’t find any details of the game when scanning through the Sky Sports schedules. The media giant televises a Ronaldo sneeze, and with British interest not only in the form of Gareth Bale but also in David Moyes, now managing the Basques, surely there had to be a mistake?

Alas not. Television companies in England are not allowed to show a live game between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday. The ruling dates back over 50 years and was the result of a petition raised by the controversial Burnley chairman at the time, Bob Lord with the Football League. He argued that televised matches on a Saturday afternoon would have a negative effect on the attendances of other football league games that were not being televised and as a result reduce their financial income. Fifty years ago this made sense, but today is it still relevant?

In the last few months Ofcom have become vocal about reviewing the legislation after a complaint by Virgin Media, who feel that the restriction means the bidding process for TV rights is artificially high. The Football Supporters Federation have weighed in, lending their support to keeping the Saturday blackout.

“It’s very important to retain the 3pm window and we’d have major reservations about a further significant increase in televised football,” said Clarke. “A 3pm kick-off on Saturday is part of the tradition of English football.”

Of course this ignores the fact that on most weekends half of the games are played outside the blackout window for television purposes (more when the weekend falls after a European club competition week) yet nobody is objecting to that. Whilst I can see an argument for the blackout for games in England, why should it extend to European competition?

The same rules do not apply in other countries and other sports. The best supported football league in the world is Germany’s Bundesliga with an average attendance of over 43,000, 20% higher than the Premier League yet they show a live Saturday afternoon game. The ability for the broadcasted to choose more games to screen increases the rights, with more flowing down into the lower leagues. Germany’s football league structure is similar to England’s and a comparable ranked league to the Ryman Premier League such as the Regionalliga will still see crowds of up to 1,000 on a Saturday afternoon. BT Sports and Sky Sports also screen live rugby union at 3pm on a Saturday without any complaints despite arguments that it could cannibalize both rugby and football attendances.

You only have to look at the situation over Christmas to see the negligible effect of the ruling. With a relatively full programme on Boxing Day (Friday) and on Sunday 28th December, Sky were able to show live matches between 2pm and 5.30pm despite other games being played at the same time without any impact on attendances. Nobody threw their arms up in the air at the fact they screened Southampton v Chelsea AND Newcastle United v Everton on the 28th December whilst six other Premier League games kicked off at 3pm.

This archaic ruling is the source of controversy around the grey area of pubs and clubs showing live games from overseas broadcasters at 3pm on a Saturday. Technically, they are free to show games as long as they have purchased the equipment and subscription legitimately, but are in breach of the blackout regulations rule if they use it to show a game live at 3pm.

The new TV rights deal for the Premier League will be for 168 games a season, up from the existing 154 matches.  The additional 14 are being created by shifting some games in non-European club competition weeks to a Friday night, which will mean 44% of all of the games in England’s top division will be available to watch live – which by a simple deduction means at the maximum, 56% will be shown at 3pm on a Saturday.  Friday night football was the norm back in the 1980’s when live games first hit our TV screens but the new deal will cause pain to most away fans.  The police will be loathed to allow the high-profile local derbies to be held on a Friday night due to the drain on resources from policing the alcohol-fuelled High Streets of broken Britain, and the TV companies will not want their prestigious games to be shown when people traditionally go out for the night.  But then again,  the Premier League has long held the actual logistics of getting to and from games with as much regard as the Football Association with their legendary scheduling of FA Cup Semi-Final matches so that one set of fans cannot actually get home.

So for now it’s fingers crossed that the snow doesn’t settle and we will have a game to watch. Otherwise I may be forced into a trip to Bluewater – now that’s definitely something that should be banned at 3pm on a Saturday!

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