Clarke v Scudamore and the Battle for 3pm Kick Offs

featured-malcolm-clarke.jpg
Malcolm Clarke and Richard Scudamore faced off in a recent article in the Guardian to discuss the merits and pitfalls of broadcaster influence over match-day schedules following last weekend's fixture list which saw only one Premier League match kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday.

Is too much football on television killing the game?


Malcolm Clarke
Chair of the Football Supporters' Federation

Yes

The weekend brings a new low in the loss of the great traditions of our game. Only one top-flight game will kick off at 3pm on Saturday, the fewest since the professional game began. In all except one case this is due to television. Matches have been moved having been chosen for television, or because they involve clubs who are playing in the Uefa Cup. This is now played on Thursdays - once football free - for the sole reason of avoiding clashes with televised Champions League games.

One game kicks off on Saturday lunchtime and the other eight are all to be played on Sunday. For the away supporters, these include such delights as Sunderland fans having to make it to the Emirates Stadium by noon - the earliest public transport is only due to arrive in central London 30 minutes before - and Chelsea fans facing a Sunday evening trek back to London from Bolton.

Let's not forget the "exiled" home fans either. It is vital that the game does not take its match-going fans for granted and nurtures the industry's best customers - away fans. If young supporters get into the habit of watching games in the pub or at home, the game is threatening its own future.

We are not naive enough to believe that we can ever return to the days of a full top-flight programme at 3pm on a Saturday. But when negotiating the television deals the football authorities could retain more control over the choice of games to be shown, even if it meant a bit less income to pass on to ludicrously spiralling players' wages. This is where most of the money goes, at least in the Premier League, even though a small proportion goes to the grassroots. That could be preserved, even on a reduced TV deal, and still leave the top echelons of the game swimming in money.

We cannot really blame the broadcasters who will obviously want to retain as much influence as possible over the games they show. They are interested in short-term audiences and advertising revenue. It is up to those running the game to take a longer view of its interests, and not surrender control in pursuit of short-term riches.

To be fair, the problem extends beyond the Premier League. Look at the farce of last night's Aldershot v Exeter game which was moved to Tuesday because Setanta decided to televise it. The broadcaster changed its mind because of a clash with the Champions League - entirely unpredictable, of course. The police said it was too late to move it back so Aldershot will lose the TV facility fee and suffer a reduced gate.

The irony is that real fans at the game are vital to the attractiveness of the television product. Sky and Setanta would not be interested in showing games played in half-empty grounds. That is why they have been complaining about some clubs not filling the seats which are most often in the view of the cameras. What next? Will everyone be shoved into limited areas so that the TV viewer does not see empty seats?

The Premier League in particular has become so mesmerised by the short-term riches it is generating from global and domestic TV audiences that it is in danger of damaging not only its own future but that of the whole football pyramid. We should not allow that to continue.

Richard Scudamore Chief Executive of the Premier League

No

This weekend's fixtures are an anomaly. Out of the 10 matches only three have been displaced ostensibly for television, and of those only two to the Sunday. The remaining six have been moved due to participation in the Uefa Cup (Blackburn, Bolton, Everton and Tottenham), transport issues (Arsenal) and a combination of the police and Uefa (Manchester City). It is a set of circumstances that we do not envisage happening again.

However, even though television is not the major factor at play here this schedule of fixtures has sparked a debate in some quarters about its role in the game. Twenty or so years ago, during the 1987- 88 season, the vast majority of matches in the top tier of English football kicked off at 3pm on Saturday, there was no live television deal and Match of the Day did not even make it on to our screens until midway through the season. Surely this time was a utopia for the match-going fan?

Maybe, if you could stomach the violence and racism that were prevalent on the terraces, felt safe enough in grounds suffering from chronic under-investment and did not mind a distinctly average standard of football. The dilemma of European midweek football was not an issue - English clubs were banned from all Uefa competitions. The reason we did not have problems with the scheduling of fixtures is that football was seen as a pariah - something not to be associated with and of limited interest.

Fast forward to today and the investment Premier League clubs have made in their stadiums, talent development and recruitment, primarily funded by broadcast money, has seen the game and competition transformed categorically for the better and to the benefit of fans. The facts do not lie. Attendances have grown virtually every season since the start of the Premier League, up some 65% in total. The average occupancy of grounds is 92% - the highest in Europe. More people than ever are watching Premier League matches on television, and now on broadband and mobile.

We are mindful of the traditions that make English football what it is, and the match-going fan is central to that, as is keeping a decent number of matches at the traditional Saturday 3pm slot, but fans need to appreciate that the Premier League does not operate in a bubble. We have faced huge European and domestic regulatory pressure, often claiming to be acting in the interests of fans, governing the number of matches made available to television. We have resisted and compromised at 138 - we would have preferred to stay at 106 - while maintaining the closed period on Saturdays at 3pm to protect attendance and participation throughout the football pyramid.

Financially the Premier League is robust and our commercial success is benefiting all levels of the game through our funding of the Football Foundation, a new and significant solidarity payment to the Football League and unprecedented investment in community - this season some £122m, more than our entire turnover 10 seasons ago. This is the sort of planning and investment that did not exist prior to the advent of the Premier League and will help ensure the long-term interest, sustainability and structure of the game.