Islands in the stream – the digital dilemma

One of the positives of the COVID-19 pandemic for football has been the removal of the ridiculous, archaic Saturday blackout period that has prohibited broadcasters showing live games between 2:45pm and 5:15pm from anywhere around the world on a Saturday for over 50 years.

The rule was the idea of Bob Lord, Chairman of Burnley FC, who back in the early 1960’s convinced the Football League that showing televised games would have impact the attendances at lower league games. What Lord was really concerned with was that if the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool or Everton were shown live at 3pm on a Saturday, it would directly impact the number of fans that would come and watch Burnley and thus the revenue his club would take.

Lord’s sentiments weren’t out of place. Football in the early 1960’s was still struggling with identity and facilities were poor. The economy was slightly unstable with inflation rising and growth in terms of GDP per capita fluctuating. Some families were able to afford such luxuries as cars and TVs which took attention away from going to football. Lord saw that the temptation to stay at home on a Saturday afternoon could harm the attendances of clubs, which back in the 1960s was the core source of income.

Since the Football League implemented the blackout, with the exception of the FA Cup Final, no game – whether played domestically or abroad – could be broadcast live on a Saturday, during the domestic season between 2:45pm and 5:15pm.

With Covid-19 leading to first the suspension of all football in the UK in March 2020, the Government, The Premier League and the Football League worked on ideas as to how to safely restart games (the controversial “Project Restart”). With no fans allowed into the stadiums, the broadcasters looked at ways to schedule fixtures to bring the maximum number of games live into our living rooms. For the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sports and Amazon, being able to show more live games meant more advertising revenue and an increase in the subscriber base. With restrictions on pubs and venues that had previously been able to show games, some of the issues the broadcasters had with illegal streaming and copyright issues also went away – for them it was a win/win to be able to increase the number of games they streamed.

To facilitate Project Restart, the blackout period was finally lifted. On Saturday 20th June 2020, Brighton & Hove Albion kicked off at 3pm against Arsenal in the first domestic game at that time in nearly 60 years.

As the new season started then clubs across the country looked at ways in which they could benefit from being able to stream their games. In the lower leagues there had been some attempts at providing OTT services previously with limited success. For clubs outside the Football League, where there was limited central revenue streams, being able to provide live coverage on a Saturday at 3pm was revolutionary.

The non-elite game, those clubs who were at Steps 3 and below in the National Game, kicked off their season in September, with restrictions on the number of fans that could attend. Some clubs complimented the ability to welcome fans with a streaming service for those who couldn’t. Likewise, when the Elite sides at Step 1 and 2 were able to start in October, they quickly looked at solutions to stream their games.

Whilst the revenue from the streaming of games didn’t in any way replace the income they would generate on a pre-Covid-19 match day, it would at least be some revenue at a time when the clubs needed it most. Some clubs invested significantly into their production – having seen Bromley FC’s set-up in recent weeks you would be forgiven to believe it was something they have only put in place in the last few months.

Bromley’s match day offering includes multi-camera coverage, live commentary, replays, in-game graphics, a pre-match show and live post-match interviews as soon as the game is over. The club have seen some impressive numbers for some of their games – 1,400 for matches against Stockport County and Wrexham, not far off their pre-Covid average crowds. The revenue has been very welcome – especially as the club, along with 65 others, are still fighting to get the second tranche of funding from DCMS as part of the Winter Survival Package. The club charge £9.99 per stream – revenue that they couldn’t have predicted at the start of last season.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the support it has received,” said Hall. “We try to be as neutral as possible, we’re not only catering for our fans but also the away fans too. We also offered support to our older supporters to access the stream and tried to make things as simple as possible.”

Whilst many clubs charged for each stream, some clubs offered it free of charge to their season ticket holders, which was something that Lewes FC did. We built a new filming gantry on the opposite side of the ground to our Main Stand, where we had filmed from before and introduced live commentary, with journalist Ben Jacobs providing the commentary for games with a co-commentator taken from one of our first teams – for this weekend’s game against London City Lionesses, Men’s first team manager Hugo Langton will be with Ben.

Even with fans allowed into the Dripping Pan for a brief period, the club provided the streaming service which is based on a donation to the club – there are no minimum amounts and some people have paid a penny to watch a game, whilst there has been one person who paid £100. Unique views per game are around the 400 mark, and donations average nearly £7 per donor, which isn’t far off the normal average yield per fan so the story is quite positive for the club. One huge benefit has been able to allow our overseas fans to watch games and thus increase the engagement with fans who previously could only follow reactively.

But the big question is what happens when fans can return? Will clubs continue to provide streaming services and if so, will they scale back the production value to reduce costs? It seems inconceivable that the Saturday blackout period will be re-introduced as attendances are unlikely to be impacted in a way that Bob Lord saw back in 1960. That means the clubs will need to determine whether they feel there is a return on investment in providing a service that on one hand could impact on a fan’s decision to attend a game (and thus impact secondary spend) but on the other would provide a revenue stream from more remote fans who previously could only follow games via Social Media.

Some clubs have stated that they wouldn’t offer it once fans could return, others would re-evaluate based on how many fans could be allowed into the ground. Certainly, in the short-term . The proliferation of illegal streams, mainly from overseas broadcasters has been a huge issue for the likes of Sky Sports for many years. In a similar way to how the legalisation of certain drugs* would bring many social and financial benefits to the economy, allowing games to be streamed live at 3pm would reduce the number of illegal streams. Whilst I may live in a utopian world, that could/should mean that subscription costs for access to the channels is held firm, or dare I say it, even reduced.

We can only dream of a world where we can watch a football match in a stadium. It will happen again in the not too distant future, but for now our viewing pleasure comes through streaming services. For many fans they have provided access to their team like they have never had before and clubs should carefully consider the economic value of that before deciding to cease any existing services when fans return.

*This is not my personal view but an economic statement.

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