Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United will be televised live by football fans around the world, but not if you live in the UK.
The reason is that the 3pm blackout, a policy designed to protect spectators and profits in the age of live TV, has lasted for decades. But in the world of streaming, and indeed where live attendance is a COVID risk, are blackouts still necessary?
In the early 1960s, Burnley Football Club president Bob Lord successfully lobbied other Football League officials to block Saturday afternoon matches from being broadcast.
The blackout has banned live broadcasting of all football matches in the UK between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on Saturdays.
Lord was worried that football on TV would have a negative impact on the game. He wasn’t alone in other sports wrestling with fears like his own. To the Lord, it was simply a matter of supply and demand. He considered broadcast matches and live spectators as substitutes.
He was not wrong. Almost all the income generated by the football club at that time came from the ticket gates. There was no broadcast revenue and little or no merchandising and sponsorship. Thoughts of a Saturday 3pm North London derby or Liverpool v Manchester United were broadcast live to those who had little other access to sports content, enough to convince Lord that the football business model would not survive this form of competition. . .
Fast forward to 2021, English football couldn’t be more different. The globalization of the game since the late 1990s has turned many British towns and small towns into famous venues. Players and managers are now sourced from almost every country on the planet, the Premier League has become one of England’s biggest exports, and every weekend supporters arrive from around the world to cheer for the adopted team.
Manchester United fans will be able to watch Ronaldo’s return live only if he is attending the match or not in England. Simon Dack / Telephoto images / Alamy Stock Photo
The economics of games have also changed. Best flying clubs like Burnley no longer rely heavily on fans coming to the game. A game in a pandemic era is a reminder of how important fans are to the mood and sights of football. Instead, the main sources of income are broadcasting, prize money, sponsorship and merchandising. The total revenue of 20 Premier League clubs in 2018/2019 exceeded 5 billion.
Revenue has declined over the past two seasons due to COVID. However, many of the best clubs have become isolated due to the evolution of how they make money. For elite clubs, match-day activity accounts for less than 20% of total revenue.
The 3pm blackout isn’t that important to Premier League clubs today. Because they don’t rely on match day activity to generate most of their revenue. In any case, matches played in these slots are usually between Premier League teams and not European club competitions, not between two of the more popular Big 6 clubs. So the effect of eliminating blackouts and broadcasting one of these games will do little to no damage to the Premier League crowd.
But English football is more than just the Premier League. The depth of the oldest interconnected set of leagues in any sport on the planet is truly astounding. There are two or three professional leagues in football strongholds like Spain, Germany and Italy, but the British system can keep the professionalism maintained by the dedication and partisan nature of the team supporters and community at least six tiers below.
Ronaldo last appeared on the Manchester United kit in 2009. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Unlike elite clubs, subdivisions rely much more on gate receipts. It could be argued that the 3pm blackout still gives the team an advantage under the English football pyramid.
But do blackouts still make sense in the modern world of near-continuous sports coverage? I do not think so.
Premier League football is shown every Saturday at 12:30pm and 5:30pm. Lunchtime matches rarely end until 2:30pm. How many fans of lower league teams have decided not to go to the match at 3pm because Ronaldo, Salah or Kane will be broadcast live on TV? I think very few. Although these players appear regularly on television every Saturday, the second tier (championship) of English football is the fifth most-watched league in all of Europe.
Attending in person with TV products was no longer the replacement that Bob Lord feared in the 1960s. On Saturdays at 3pm, both sports and non-sports options are available, but League 1 crowds average around 8,000 per game and League 2 sees less than 5,000.
This figure is higher than many top tier UEFA leagues and means that the third and fourth tiers of English football attract more fans on average than the first tiers of countries like Greece, Romania, Serbia and Finland. Not to mention the possibility of watching 3pm Kickoff via (illegal) streaming services or other means anyway.
But the Football League adheres to rules that were in place long before satellite television or the Internet as we know it.
The irony is, of course, that foreign fans in the Premier League actually consume more TV content than their domestic fans, as they can legally watch Saturday 3pm matches outside the UK.
While the world watches Ronaldo reappear in a Manchester United jersey, those who live in and around Manchester without an Old Trafford ticket will have to wait until around 5pm to watch the streaming content, or the night’s game is almost over. You will have to wait until As old as the blackout itself.
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