3pm TV ban on football? Scrap it, argues Gab Marcotti

The Premier League has warned pubs they face legal action for using unauthorised broadcasters to show live games on Saturday afternoons. In this excerpt from The Blizzard Gabriele Marcotti argues that new models are required in the digital age and the 3pm blanket TV ban should be scrapped for the sake of all clubs, especially smaller ones...

Update - This week (13th January 2017) The Blizzard featured the piece on their excellent Podcast. You can listen to it in the player below, or subscribe through iTunes and other audio outlets. 

The path to fandom used to be pretty straightforward. An older family member took you to watch your local team. You were smitten and the addiction began. When you were old enough, you started going with your friends. If you moved away, you always caught the result in the papers and, when you were home for the holidays, you caught a game.

That was the blueprint for many years and it worked. It steadily churned out generation after generation of fan who knew and understood the game primarily as a live event. Anything on top of that was special occasion stuff delivered via television: FA Cup finals, World Cups, Match of the Day. It didn’t really matter if your team was on or not, you watched because it was football and you liked the sport, but you were under no illusion: supporting your team was different and you lived your fandom in a different way.

Times have changed. For most, the introduction to football is via television and the internet. That’s where you fall in love, that’s where you become a fan. And even if are a young kid who is lucky enough to have a family member with the time and finances to take you to watch your local team, consider the circumstances and the competition.

You’re ten-years-old, Dad takes you to the City Ground to watch Nottingham Forest, say, 20 times a year. Beyond that, apart from Dad telling you about how they got on in their away matches, brief highlights on TV, consulting the league table every Sunday and maybe conversations with a couple Forest-supporting mates at school, this is pretty much the extent of Forest in your life.

Meanwhile, Manchester United are on the box once or twice a week. Every week. Their players show up on Sky Sports News. The club are all over the papers. Everybody at school, regardless who they support, has an opinion on Wayne Rooney. Oh, and they’re very good. Much better, in fact, than Forest.

Might you turn your back on your local club in exchange for membership of the Red Empire? Possibly… and that’s with the cards stacked in favour of you being a Forest fan. Most kids don’t have the privilege of football with Dad on Saturdays. And yet they still have the lure of faraway clubs served up via television.

Some will argue that the only way to turn the tide is to rethink the way football revenue — especially TV money — is shared. They’ll talk about levelling the playing field, giving everyone an equal slice and introducing salary caps to banish the Roman Abramoviches and Sheikh Mansours. That way, everyone will have a shot at winning, success will be shared around and, with it, so will fandom.

Well, this isn’t about that. The harsh reality is that the ship has sailed on that front. The Premier League isn’t going away any time soon and, for that matter, neither is the Champions’ League. And, besides, the distribution of domestic TV money in England is already very equitable, at least in the top flight.

But what if football rethought its relationship with TV? What if you could come up with a plan that would, at once, revitalise local support, help smaller clubs market themselves better, boost attendances and, yes, increase the size of the pie for everyone? What follows is a modest proposal inspired by the NFL’s approach to TV in the United States. It’s a strategy that requires tweaks, sacrifices, cooperation between the Premier League and Football League and, perhaps, a leap of faith. But, hopefully, one worth exploring.

The first thing you do is get rid of the TV blackout rule, the one which prevents broadcasters from showing live football between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on Saturdays. It’s a stupid anachronism dating back to the time when folks believed that televised football was a substitute for going to games. It’s meant to protect attendances but, in fact, it does no such thing. It assumes that if you’re a Liverpool fan in, say, Huddersfield, you’ll watch the Reds at 12.45 pm on Sky and then set off for the Galpharm. In fact, you’ll probably do no such thing. You’ll pick one or the other.

Instead, divide up the weekend into nine “slots”: 7.45pm on Friday, noon, 2pm, 4pm and 6pm on Saturday, noon, 2pm and 4pm on Sunday and 8pm on Monday. The Friday night game is reserved for a “Game of the Week” from the Championship. Sunday at 4pm, as is the case now, is for the pick of the Premier League games, as is the Monday night slot.

The other six time slots are reserved for local games to be shown on a regional basis. (For convenience, I’m referring to TV throughout this article but, in fact, the football would also be shown via the web but, again, using IP addresses and geo-location, with strict regional limitations.) For example, let’s say you’re in Rotherham. Here’s what your weekend line-up might look like:

  • Friday, 7.45pm: Cardiff v Bolton (Championship Game of the Week)
  • Saturday, noon: Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton (local game) 
  • Saturday, 2pm: Bury v Doncaster Rovers (local game) 
  • Saturday 4pm: Rotherham v Aldershot (local game) 
  • Saturday 6pm: Derby County v Barnsley (local game) 
  • Sunday, noon: Chesterfield v Torquay (local game) 
  • Sunday, 2pm: Carlisle v Sheffield United (local game) 
  • Sunday, 4pm: Arsenal v Tottenham (Super Sunday) 
  • Monday, 8pm: Newcastle v Everton (Monday Night Football)

I know what you’re saying: if my local club are on TV, won’t it kill attendances? Why would somebody march down to their local ground when they can watch their club from the comfort of their front room or, better yet, their local pub?

Well, here’s the twist. For a game to be shown locally on TV it needs to be either an away match or, a home game that sells out or, at the very least, reaches some prearranged attendance goal. Ideally, only sell-outs would be on TV but, in practice, at some grounds, that’s very difficult to do. Hillsborough has a capacity of 39,372, Sheffield Wednesday averaged 21,336 last season. Expecting them to sell out is a big ask. So you set an attendance goal of, say, 30,000. If they can hit that, they’re on TV.

Doing it this way creates a virtuous cycle. Clubs would only get TV money if their home games are actually on TV. This would create an incentive for them to boost attendance which, in turn, would lead to better marketing of games and, above all, lower ticket prices. With extra TV revenue coming in, clubs could make games more affordable, especially for kids, without losing money. (Obviously it would take some tweaking to get the balance right, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.) What’s more, if a game hits its target and makes it on TV, it will be the only English game on TV at that time in that region.

Increased attendance means more bums on seats, including young ones, who might not otherwise have gone. Packed stadiums also provide a better atmosphere which, in turn, provides more entertainment, both for those at the game and those watching at home. It also provides more and better sponsorship opportunities, which, in turn, means more revenue for the club.

What’s more, a young Rotherham fan would know that every single one of his team’s away matches would be on TV. And, when Rotherham are at home, he would always have the option of seeing them in person, or, if they sell out, on TV. What better way to build loyalty to a club?

Obviously, different-sized clubs might do this in different ways. A Premier League or Championship side might host fans at the stadium and show the game on the big screen: charge a quid to get in, and make money by selling food, drinks and merchandise (ideally at non-matchday prices)… after all, what else are you going to do with your stadium when the team are away from home? When you stop and think about it, right now, clubs are wasting 50% of their output — their away matches — and getting nothing in return in terms of marketing their product.

How about the counterarguments?

We’d lose the sanctity of the 3pm kick-offs. Fine. English football is, rightly, proud of its traditions. But the game has already grown and evolved. We’ve lost the “sanctity” of terracing in top-flight football, shirts numbered 1-11, three subs on the bench (and, before that, two subs and one sub and no subs). The game grows and evolves — some of these “traditions” are worthwhile, others are just customs. We can grow accustomed to different ones. And if it means strengthening the bond of local football, with younger fans learning that, first and foremost, you support your local team, then it’s worthwhile.

This could hurt travelling support. After all, if Rotherham are on TV, why should I make that six-hour round trip across the country to watch them play? Well, the harsh reality is that travelling supporters make up a tiny percentage of football fans. Sure, these are often the liveliest, most passionate fans. But they’re also a privileged subset who can afford — both financially and in terms of time commitments — to go watch their team home and away. And, besides, TV is not a substitute for actually going to a game. If they’re passionate fans, they’ll still go. Just as supporters still go to away games in the Premier League, even when they’re on TV.

Logistically and technologically it would be a nightmare, far too difficult to pull off. Actually, it wouldn’t be. Every Premier League and Football League game is already filmed every week. Sure, not every game has 20 cameras like on Super Sunday. But you don’t need 20 cameras at every match. Nor do you need stellar production values.

The Premier League would never go for it. There would be fewer games on national television and, therefore, less TV revenue for everyone. Not necessarily. Sure, we’d go from four or five nationally televised games a week down to two. But so what? Every single game would be on TV somewhere. And the numbers would work out. Take Manchester United, the most extreme example since they are the biggest televised draw and they are on TV more than any other club. Last season, they were on 29 times. Under this plan, the number of national TV appearances might fall to, say, 14.

But that would be mitigated by the fact that all 38 of their games (assuming they always sell out, which they do) would be on live in the Manchester region. Plus, the fact that they sell out whenever they’re on the road means they’d be on TV in every region they’re visiting as well. United’s total aggregate TV audience might fall slightly. But the vast majority of Premier League clubs and every single club in the Football League would see their aggregate TV audience skyrocket. And, overall, that translates to more viewers and a more valuable TV contract.

Sure, there are other issues that would need to be resolved. For example, you would need to figure out how to sell the TV rights packages and how to split them among the various broadcasters. But that can be done. You also have the issue of several regions — London comes to mind — in which there are more than six league clubs. Doing it strictly by postcode and providing access to the six nearest teams by radius might penalise certain clubs. Geography doesn’t always help.

And what of those clubs that are isolated? Bournemouth might be one of these six league clubs closest to Plymouth, but does it really make sense to screen their games there? Here, you could use some common sense. Maybe, when one of the six nearest clubs is more than 75 miles away, you don’t fill all six slots. Maybe you just show another game that happens to be on at that time but which might draw some interest (a rival from the same division, perhaps). Common sense should prevail, sometimes fan bases don’t always follow geography. But what you don’t do is show Manchester United everywhere simply because they have more supporters.

It’s easy to get bogged down in detail. But the key message remains: television is the ultimate marketing tool when it comes to football. And for most clubs, crazy as it sounds, it’s actually underused. If done correctly and intelligently, a plan like this can ensure that one of England’s greatest sporting treasures — the visceral attachment to local clubs that still exists away from the Premier League — is maintained through the next few generations even as the pressure to go the other way and simply back a “big club” becomes ever greater.

This is an exclusive extract offered to the FSF by the collective of writers at The Blizzard which is out now on a pay-what-you-like basis. Find out more here.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author – they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF. Have your say below and play nice…