Monday, March 28, 2011

Time to move on from the Saturday afternoon Blackout

I realise that I’m not the first person to go down this road. The UK TV broadcasting embargo has been a matter of consternation since John Logie Baird chucked the corpse of the real inventor of television into a bottomless pit. Recently, many people in the football blogosphere have argued both for and against the embargo with equal eloquence. But things have changed over the last few months raising the whole issue of the embargo and it may well be that a decision needs to be made about whether or not it should continue.

In summary, for those of you emerging from a bottomless pit with a headache, none of the Saturday 3pm fixtures can be broadcast live on UK TV. This is to protect lower-league and non-league clubs from losing revenue potential should spectators decide to stay home and watch top-flight football rather than popping along to see their local club. The English and Scottish FA Cup Finals do not count because it, traditionally at least, takes place after the final round of league fixtures. Controversially, the recent match between England and Wales appears to be exempt, presumably on the basis that upper levels of the professional leagues in England and Scotland are not playing due to the international break..

This doesn't stop rights holders from selling the Saturday afternoon games to overseas broadcasters. In fact for many years that is precisely what they’ve done. Up until recently, this arrangement seemed relatively uncontroversial but of late the Blackout is becoming increasingly difficult to regulate. Through the miracle of broadband internet it is becoming a rule that is, to quote the Bard, “more honoured in the breech than the observance.”

To illustrate, let us use a case study: “T” is a handsome and virile football fan and season-ticket holder for his local club. When his team are away he likes to go to non-league games or stay home and watch coverage of the English matches via Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports with broadcasting legend Jeff Stelling and his motley bunch of ex-professional footballers watching the games and describing the action. However, recently he has started making friends on Twitter with a number of North American soccer fans. Those fans spend their Saturday afternoons watching Premier League football on their TV screens in their houses. “T” thinks to himself “Hang on, this is a bit rum. How can they watch football taking place thousands of miles away when I can’t watch the same game that’s taking place in the same country as me?”

Anyway, it turns out that some of his friends can’t afford the subscription fees for the channels that carry these games so they watch them illegally on the internet. And being the friendly type who love to share things, they hook “T” up with a feed and so he can watch the game as well, albeit on a feed of hideous quality with shitty banner ads plastered all over their browser and goodness knows how many bits of Malware settling in nicely to his computer’s registry (yes, yes Mac Users, I know).

But “T” can’t bare watching the game on a tiny window on his laptop, he decides to go down to his local boozer where the game is on live thanks to an independent satellite system and decoder card acquired from Greece or Italy or any broadcaster within the European Union. This allows the pub to screen overseas TV channels broadcasting football matches. The commentary may not be in English (although that isn’t always the case) but that doesn’t matter because “T” doesn’t hold commentators in that much regard being something of a know-it-all.

This was allowed to happen thanks to the hard work of a very nice lady from Portsmouth called Karen Murphy who stood up to the Premier League who fined her for showing foreign broadcasts of English matches.It looks very likely that the EU courts are going to find in her favour and from now on Nova Sport or Sky Italia or whoever can be sold legally within the UK.

Now it’s worth pointing out that my case study is purely anecdotal. However, I’m not about the let the lack of empirical evidence interfere with my opinion and am going to suggest that the above scenario is not an unusual one among a growing number of people who fall within the Premier League target demograph. Sooner or later, the reality will have to dawn on the powers that be that the black out is becoming obsolete thanks to improved communications and legislation. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that overseas broadcasters will seek to sell subscription packages directly to the consumer. If Sky and ESPN (the other live Premier League rights holders in the UK) are not careful, their heavily invested in business model will be affected as some of their existing customer base, anxious to cut back on their monthly expenditure in these difficult economic times, seek a cheaper way of watching football.

How Sky and ESPN plan to respond to this is not a question I can answer. Who knows what depraved thoughts go through the mind of your average TV sports executive? However, it would be astonishing to imagine that UK broadcasters (including BBC and ITV who hold live TV rights for other domestic competitions) won’t argue strongly for the lifting of the Blackout. They’ll say that to allow foreign broadcasters to sell subscriptions that include Saturday afternoon games is unfair. They’ll say it’s anti-competitive and that they should have the chance to compete on a level playing field.

And of course, they would be right, annoyingly. This is why I think that in due course, the Blackout will become a thing of the past.

So where does that lead the clubs in League 1 and 2 in the lower leagues? Well, I think it might be time for another case study:

Earlier this season I went to Carshalton Athletic for an FA Cup qualifying game against Chelmsford Town. After the game, myself and a few others retired to a local pub to play bar billiards and drink beer. Briefly, we discussed the Blackout and the feeling was that most of us would be at home watching the Premier League if it was on the telly, rather than going to the match and spending money in the pub after. On that basis it was decided that the Blackout was a good thing for clubs and local business and we all had another drink. What we did not ask ourselves was if the match we’d just seen had kicked off at 1pm and the Premier League was on the telly in the pub, would we still have gone. Given that we lived within a train ride from the ground, there is a good chance that we would have said 'yes'.

I think there is a strong case for breaking with the 3pm tradition and moving lower league matches to different times of the day. They do this in Germany and while it’s not possible to measure its success, the 2. Bundesliga, 3-Liga and Regionalliga still exist and people still go to the games. It must be acknowledged, however, that Second Division kick-off times in Germany are a big issue among fans of clubs from that division.

I know of two non-league clubs in my area that moved their kick-off time last Saturday to 1pm to accommodate the Wales v England game which was screened on the telly in the club bar. I’ll wager that this arrangement was replicated all over the England and went down pretty well, assuming those bars have got access to Sky Sports.

Another option would be to keep the kick-off times and make the best of it. Dave Boyle, the CEO of Supporters Direct argues that lower league clubs have an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience by broadcasting their games via TV or the internet and conceivably monetising their coverage.

“... the abolition of the 3pm rule offers an opportunity. For starters, all those fans a club might have who simply can’t get to games can now watch the team and pay for the privilege, bringing new income to the club. It also gives a chance to build a brand. Every club has a brand of course – it’s just that the brand is geographically limited. You’re a club playing in a certain place, mainly for people who live there, or used to. Whilst everyone else has similar brands – before the advent of TV – that’s not so bad. But when TV gives your competitors a chance to develop their brand regionally, nationally and internationally, it gives you a problem you simply can’t bridge. No wonder people would rather watch the big club on TV rather than watch you in the flesh. But now everyone will have a better chance.”

Of course, there are contractual issues but from Boyle’s perspective the lifting of the Blackout gives smaller clubs the freedom to broaden their fan base beyond their immediate location.

The final option is probably the least controversial and that is to preserve the Blackout and move the Premier League and perhaps the Championship to Sundays. That will serve to protect lower league clubs from dropping attendances but won’t actually stop the transmission of matches from other leagues in Europe, or other matches from the lower leagues.

In truth, I suspect that all three options will be used to a greater or lesser degree. Some clubs and leagues will move times, some will not and the Premier League and Football League will experiment with moving the Saturday fixtures to Sunday or later in the same day. As much as it goes against my leftist grain, I suspect that the market will decide. That between them, the supporters, the TV companies, the leagues, the FA and the Police will work something out.

Ultimately, this is all Sky’s fault for charging pubs too much money to show football. If they’d been more reasonable, it is likely that Karen Murphy would not have sought a cheaper alternative and then not gone to court. The Blackout existed on the basis of a consensus, because all the relevant stakeholders derived value in maintaining it. Sky’s (and in turn the Premier League’s) avarice has resulted in one group of stakeholders losing faith in that consensus and has ended up with it breaking down. The challenge now is to adjust and form a new consensus. A good way to start would be by calling time on the Saturday afternoon Blackout.

1 comment :

Terry Duffelen said...

If you're interested in reading an alternative view on this issue then read Gary Andrew's exellent piece on why he thinks that the Balckout should stay.