Ofcom are set to investigate the Premier League’s allocation of live matches to UK Broadcasters. We examine the past, present and future of the infamous blackout.
So what’s happening?
Currently the Premier League allows TV rights holders to broadcast just under half of it’s games live, in the UK so that’s 154 games out of grand total of 380.
Ofcom are the UK regulators for broadcasting, telecommunications and postal industries. Virgin Media lodged a complaint with the regulator in September requesting Ofcom to investigate the allocation of TV rights domestically by the league.
Virgin cited that the current process is driving up the price of purchasing the rights hugely. Why does this interest Ofcom though? Well, if the bidding process is deemed to be in breach of Section 25 of the Competition Act which states:
“Ofcom may conduct an investigation where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that there is an agreement which has as its object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the UK and/or the EU.”
If the process is deemed to be breaching competition law then more Premier League matches could end up being included in the bundles that the Premier League sells to Broadcasters. This would see the huge increase in the cost of bidding that occurs each round falling as now more matches can be distributed across broadcasters.
In turn this lowers the cost for the likes of Sky, BT and Virgin who won’t have huge price increases to pass on to their subscribers. But where will these games come from? Ofcom are looking into the possibility of airing matches from the hallowed Saturday afternoon 3pm slot. But it’s a tricky subject to even broach.
So why are there no Saturday 3pm matches on TV?
It all started in the 1960s. Convinced by Burnley Chairman Bob Lord, Football League Chairmen joined forces to halt the airing of matches at 3pm on a Saturday. But why? Lord felt that big games being televised at that time would hurt attendances for smaller clubs, like his Burnley team.
Reasoning that people would rather watch a big game than support their local team, these Chairmen feared the potential loss of match-day revenue that could occur.
And so, based on that premise, with no real proof other than a hunch it came to pass that no match on a Saturday between 2:45 and 5:15 could be aired on TV within the UK. This has remained in place ever since, with the exception of the FA Cup final which has always been shown on a Saturday at 3pm until only recently when it was switched to 5pm in a controversial move by the FA.
Does the blackout work?
It’s hard to know whether it has increased attendance as the only way to know for sure would be to lift it and measure results. However, we can turn our attentions abroad to countries where no such ban exists to see what effect, if any, has been had on smaller teams and their attendance figures.
The answer is a resounding no. In 2011 the European Court of Justice looked into the matter and declared there was no concrete evidence to suggest the lack of a blackout would negatively impact on match attendance as both activities contain such wildly different properties and qualities.
Advocate General Kokott of the European Court of Justice concluded:
“It has not been adequately shown to the Court that the closed periods actually encourage attendance at and participation in matches.”
In fairness, there may have been a time when the blackout did hold together the fabric of the English game. In the 1990s as Sky Sports entered the market English football was a different beast. In the aftermath of Hillsborough in 1989 attendances were suffering and football’s reputation was shot to pieces. Hillsborough was the culmination of decades of issues within English football and the game suffered in its aftermath.
Sky’s money and hype could have crushed the lower leagues had it possessed the right to air whatever game it wanted. But 20 years on the landscape has been changed as a result of that Sky and now BT money. The health of the lower leagues is no longer dependent on the chances of a televised 3pm kick-off.
How long can the Blackout last?
Ofcom will meet the Football Supporters’ Federation to discuss the Blackout and get a better understanding on the implications of lifting it from their perspective. The FSF believe that the Premier League ‘product’ loses a lot of value without the vibrancy of fans packing stadiums and will certainly base their thoughts around this. For the FSF their concern is getting the best deal for stadium-going fans and it’s so far unclear what their stance will be.
“Ofcom also acknowledges the importance of Saturday 3pm kick-offs to fans. All-too-often TV’s needs come before match-going supporters as games are shunted around the calendar.” – FSF
However the FSF may be powerless to intervene if Europe gets involved and it’s certainly a possibility. A European Commission report that was released in the summer stated that the blackout
“sits at odds with the European Commission’s aspirations to promote cross-border access to audiovisual content”
This line of thinking will have the backing of a lobby with a lot of cash to spend to get there way; TV Broadcasters. Should Europe truly want to intervene, the blackout will end, it’s just a matter of when rather than if.
Sean Curtin, Pundit Arena