Time to see the light: Rethinking the TV Blackout

In the world of online streaming, sport has never been more accessible to fans. Betting companies offer live streams of events (if you have an account, of course), television channels offer live sport at almost any hour of the day and illegal streams can be found with the simplest of internet searches. The Premier League is at the peak of this accessibility, such is the worldwide nature of the competition.

Televised everywhere, the success of the league is based on its popularity, said popularity relies on matches being readily available on every corner of the globe. Live matches, that is, with their own array of commentators and pundits.

In the United Kingdom, the television blackout is still in action, however. With the aim to prevent people staying in and watching televised football during the 3pm Saturday kick-offs, no live football can be broadcast on a Saturday afternoon between 2:45pm and 5:15pm.  While games are available across a range of channels in other countries, the blackout restricts the viewing of fans in the UK.

Without entering into the realm of persecution complexes, this seems foolish. The concept makes sense, but it has outgrown its use. If people want to watch football during the blackout hours they can. It is a relative unknown whether this strategy has any discernible impact on attendances at matches in the lower leagues. In truth, we can only generate reliable data if a trial period without the blackout is attempted.

As TV channels broadcast football matches from around the world throughout the week, this ruling becomes increasingly hard to stick with. For example, El Clasico was unable to be shown in the United Kingdom a few weeks ago because of the blackout. More football fans in the UK are supporting/following teams from different corners of the globe; stopping the broadcast of Borussia Dortmund or Nice will not have any impact on attendances.

Football is a worldwide business. As much as many want to preserve the traditions of the sport, the growth of the game is based on its success as a business model. Stubborn marketing from Premier League clubs – and the league itself – has been as significant a factor in its growth as the star quality of players like Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba. An uncomfortable truth, perhaps, but money is the cornerstone of the success the Premier League has. The recent influx of top class managers is not because of the great history of English football, it is because clubs can afford them and they know they will be moving into a financially competitive league.

As a business decision taken at the top echelons of the English game, the blackout makes no sense. Unlike in Italy, there are no issues with top level attendances. While football is so very accessible even during the blackout hours, there is lost revenue there. This could be revenue that is fed down to the grassroots of the English football, returned to those lower league clubs that are supposedly seeing their gate receipts boosted by the law. Each Premier League match could be televised, played across the weekend and generate an even greater pool of riches.

Football is not all about financial growth, yet there are few, if any, winners in the current blackout scenario. Fans are left frustrated (and many will end up watching on a grainy stream anyway), clubs are unable to receive TV rights and the Premier League is left unable to take advantage of its product – its wonderfully branded, immensely competitive product.

In the example of El Clasico, thousands of fans were unable to watch the greatest match in club football. That, however well-reasoned, cannot be beneficial for football as a whole. This is the perfect example of the law’s greatest failing: it is a crude means to an end that many do not care for. Non-league football does need protecting – of course it does – but all the money grotesquely sloshing around in the English game should make that feasible without the need for an outdated blackout.

Football is watched during the blackout hours, anyway. Non-league football can be supported by the financial Premier League juggernaut. The blackout once served a noble purpose, and the motives behind it are commendable, but it is nothing more than a restriction of opportunity now. Opening up 3pm games to the potential riches of television companies would inflate the finances at the top clubs further, but this money should be allocated to the growth of the game at the grassroots. A simple measure would improve the situation for all parties.

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