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The 3 pm blackout is a cartel move and you're all being had
On the English football's infamous Saturday TV rule, who it's for, and what it actually achieves
Whenever I explain the blackout to people from outside the UK, I get some very confused reactions.
It essentially goes like this: between 2.45 pm and 5.15 pm, every Saturday, there is no football shown on television in the UK. Yes, that is the time when the largest number of Premier League games are played, meaning matches like Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Leicester and Nottingham Forest’s defeat to Tottenham went unseen in the league’s native country. Britain is essentially the worst country in the world to watch its most famous sporting product.
Cards on the table, I don’t support the blackout. As it exists right now, the blackout essentially bans people from legally watching football on TV during those hours, and I don’t think that’s justifiable. Generally speaking, we only ban something when it’s clearly harmful to an individual or those around them. Drink driving, say, is banned because someone can crash the car and threaten lives. The bar for banning something is usually very high but, in this case, we’re doing it to protect football attendances. I wouldn’t be harming myself or anyone around me if I watched some football on TV, but nonetheless, I’m not allowed to do it. You can drink and smoke as much as you want on a Saturday afternoon, but we draw the line at theoretically damaging the English football pyramid.
Supporters of the blackout also benefit from a strong status quo bias. Since the blackout is already in place, the burden of proof is placed on people like me to argue that it should be abolished. In order to morally justify the blackout, supporters should have to demonstrate two things in my view. First, they should show that the blackout is having a positive effect on matchday attendance. Second, they need to demonstrate that it has majority support among UK football fans, because I don’t remember anyone consulting us on this industry move. Advocates of the blackout have done neither because it’s already in place, and thus it is assumed that the burden of proof is on those who want to change things.
But that’s not the real issue. The entire argument about why the blackout exists is, in my opinion, false, framing the pyramid as something fans must protect themselves from while English football rakes in record revenues. Modern football has taken a sledgehammer to every other tradition when there’s money to be made, except this one. The 20 Premier League owners, some of the most despicable and selfish people you’ll find on the planet, support the blackout without any club breaking ranks. Project Big Picture, 2020’s radical plan from Liverpool and Manchester United to screw over fans while making ever more money, would end a lot of traditions in favour of more profit. But the blackout, as ever, stayed intact. We haven’t even seen anyone seriously suggest the obvious compromise that Premier League games move out of the Saturday afternoon slot, allowing them to air without infringing the blackout. I can see two possibilities:
John Henry and Joel Glazer, along with all the other investors in Premier League clubs, sincerely believe in protecting the pyramid, and are willing to reject even more money out of the goodness of their hearts.
There is actually an ulterior motive for supporting the blackout that ensures they make even more money.
I mean, which do you think it is? We’ll get into why but, first, we have to understand where the blackout came from in the first place.
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It’s funny in hindsight to see English football become so rich from TV broadcasts considering how hard the sport fought against it for so long. In 1960, British channel ITV agreed a deal to air 26 live matches for a price of £150,000 (about £2.75m today), as explained in the book The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Except it wasn’t quite as it sounded. The clubs were terrified of live football affecting attendances, so they only allowed ITV to air the second half of matches. Yes, really. That arrangement lasted for about a month, when Arsenal and Tottenham refused to let ITV broadcast the North London Derby at all, and the deal collapsed. There was a strong sentiment that letting football on TV at all would destroy attendances, and so the clubs congratulated themselves on seeing off the threat.
In 1964, BBC proposed a different solution. Every Saturday night, the corporation would air the highlights of one game, hence the title Match of the Day. The clubs tolerated this solution both because it was simply highlights aired well after the day’s football finished, and because the programme would air on BBC Two, a channel most of the country could not receive at the time. The first match, Liverpool against Arsenal, received 20,000 viewers, well short of the 47,620 fans who saw it in person at Anfield.
After the 1966 World Cup popularity, TV bosses wanted to move Match of the Day to BBC One, a channel almost everyone in the country received and watched regularly. Suddenly, English football highlights had a potential audience of millions, and not everyone was thrilled. Burnley chairman Bob Lord was more vocal than anyone else. Lord chased the cameras away from Turf Moor, with some reports claiming he banned Match of the Day from covering Burnley for five years.
Lord was not exactly a gentleman. A businessman who happily sacked his staff on Christmas Eve, he was known for his bluster and outspoken comments. He claimed that “all the talk about Munich seemed to have gone to the heads of some of the [Manchester] United players” after Burnley stood largely alone in putting the brakes on offering United whatever they needed after the horrendous tragedy, creating bad blood between the clubs. His battle with TV broadcasters saw him reach new lows, claiming that people in the game “have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run TV”. That’s obviously unacceptable now, but it was also beyond the pale at the time, causing many guests to walk out at the event where he uttered that disgusting claim.
Lord may have been nasty and bigoted, but he was not stupid when it came to the bottom line. BBC offered a payment of just £10 (about £150 today) to film and broadcast Burnley’s match. “Lord’s abiding belief”, Dave Thomas and Mike Smith explain in their biography of the chairman, “was that if football was a business it should be run like a business; the BBC should pay a proper business-like rate for the product that was on offer”. Clearly, he was ahead of his time on that point, but he still missed the forest for the trees. “If the game had been on television, we would have had a less than 10,000 gate”, he claimed. Burnley were seeing average attendances of around 20,000 at the time. If there was serious money to be made, Lord wanted it, but he was clear-eyed that broadcasting merely the highlights would cut attendance in half. “We have got to keep up with the Joneses and we are second in the First Division, so our first thought must be keeping solvent. The shop won’t stay open if we allow 25-minute films of matches almost as soon as they are over”. Lord would claim later in life that he was “never anti-television”, but he could not imagine a world where TV revenues could dwarf gate attendance money.
Lord drove the anti-broadcast faction to reach a compromise with the FA: football would not be broadcast on TV between 2.45 and 5.15 pm on a Saturday. This covered the traditional slot when the vast majority of games were played. Lord might not have seen off the threat completely, but he at least protected the hours when he did business. Gate receipts weren’t completely safe, but there was no way to watch football on a Saturday afternoon other than buying a ticket to go to the game in person.
For a while, the clubs fearful of TV could say they were right. When Match of the Day launched in 1964, the average game across England’s top four divisions saw about 14,000 fans attend. By 1986, that number was down to just over 8,000. For teams below the first tier, it was just 5,000. English fans love to praise the “pyramid” as an eternal bedrock keeping the game strong, but it really did look to be in terminal decline in the 1980s. By this point, there were ten live games a season on TV, and some viewed that as disastrous. “Rattled by dwindling attendance, which was in no way related to television coverage,”, Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg explain in The Club, “the country’s smaller clubs clamoured for a return to highlights-only programming”. The 1980s were when we really saw a divide emerge between the big clubs, who wanted more games broadcast to make more money, and the rest, which saw TV as a poison eroding their gate receipts.
Of course, this tension caused everything in English football to change in 1992, when the top division clubs broke away to form the Premier League. Now there were 60 live games shown every season instead of ten, all with cutting-edge coverage and a new level of insight from Sky Sports. The money Sky spent on getting the rights was greater than anything the top clubs could have imagined, all while deliberately cutting out the lower-league sides. This was the worst nightmare. English football’s prized pyramid had never before been under such a threat.
But then something surprising happened. Attendances started rising again across the board. That was understandable in the Premier League, where slick marketing had made the competition exciting to the general public. Lower league attendances had doubled in the space of 24 years, to around 10,000 in 2010. During all of this, the volume of live football on TV skyrocketed. It was Bob Lord’s worst nightmare, with 138 Premier League games a year joined by the Champions League, Europa League, domestic cups and a whole manner of foreign leagues. And attendances were fine. There has been no negative correlation between football broadcast on TV and lower league attendance.
Abolishing the blackout, of course, would create a different kind of problem. Most lower league games are played on Saturday afternoons, protected from live football on TV. Perhaps this would be such a radical shift to redefine our relationship with football, unlike every other round of new fixtures on TV. I don’t know. But it is important to stress that Lord’s concern wasn’t about protecting the pyramid. Burnley were a top-flight club doing well for themselves throughout the 1960s. The rule was created to protect clubs’ own incomes, not from a sense of charity to those less fortunate.
But that’s not why it exists today. If the Premier League wanted it gone – and they would definitely want it gone if they thought football was leaving money on the table – it would have gone years ago. But they’ve been clear in supporting the blackout for the next round of TV rights, even as the lower divisions contemplate scrapping it for their games. “We’ve been proponents of Article 48 [the UEFA rule that allows countries to set a blackout] for the entire Premier League and I don’t see that changing in the near term”, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters stated recently. The official reason is, of course, that the Premier League wants to help out lower-league clubs by protecting their gate receipts.
But the first real reason was let slip last year. “Clubs also fear”, the Telegraph reported in October, that “making more games available for broadcast would not guarantee them additional revenue and could even lead to oversaturation that would damage the value of their TV rights”. I think their hunch is probably right on this. There’s no shortage of supply when it comes to football, so they’re artificially limiting the amount of product on the market in order to keep demand high. That’s why they’re not simply moving all of the games out of the Saturday afternoon slot and airing every single one on Sundays. This is what I mean when I say it’s a cartel move. In other countries, the Premier League realistically has to compete with other leagues for popularity. In the UK, there is essentially no threat to the Premier League’s dominance, so the league is able to gouge consumers by charging more than anywhere else in the world for only half the games.
That’s the main reason the Premier League supports the blackout, in my view. The other factor is that it generates good PR. The Premier League is seen to be doing something to protect the pyramid, and it mysteriously happens to be the one thing that doesn’t involve spending any money. This is why it’s a totally false choice to ask fans to support the blackout. The Premier League’s total revenues hit nearly £5 billion in 2020-21. UK fans are funding a disproportionate volume of that. I have absolutely no doubt most fans would be happy to see a chunk of their money spent on Sky Sports and BT Sport go down the pyramid to ensure clubs stay afloat. If we want to protect lower-league and non-league clubs, direct cash transfers from the top would be a far more effective and reliable move than the blackout. You don’t need me to tell you why they’d prefer restricting TV coverage to paying out of their own pocket.
English football is astoundingly wealthy. There is far too much money around for fans to have to make sacrifices in order to protect its foundations. We could fund the pyramid for a thousand years from the Premier League’s TV money. But the richest clubs have deliberately framed this debate as one where fans should make a sacrifice, washing their hands of any responsibility to other clubs in the process. In that sense, Bob Lord would be proud of the blackout today.
I don’t think I’m going to change everyone’s minds here. Some of you will disagree with me and that’s fine. But I would ask: next time you defend the blackout, whose interests are you working towards? Are you attacking the greed of the Premier League, as you probably assume? Or are you actually defending the financial interests of the billionaires who own the clubs?
I would argue, though few realise this, defenders of the blackout are doing the latter.