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What Will Happen If The EFL Scrap The 3PM Football TV Blackout?

men on coach watching football on tvIn the 1960s, the then-Chairman of Burnley Football Club persuaded his fellow Chairmen in the Football League that showing football matches on Saturday afternoons would adversely affect the attendances at games around the country.

It was felt that it would have  the largest impact on matches of teams in the lower leagues, so it was decided that there would be a blackout on live football matches being shown on television between 2.45pm and 5.15pm every Saturday. In spite of how long ago that was, that rule remains in place even today.

As the English Football League negotiates its new TV rights deal, however, which would take effect from 2024, they are considering scrapping the 3pm blackout rule. The present deal sees Sky Sports pay the EFL around £595 million for the broadcast rights, having negotiated the five-year arrangement in 2018.

At the time, many Championship clubs felt that it under-valued the competition, with the feeling now being that scrapping the 3pm blackout rule would allow a deal to be negotiated with streaming services such as Amazon, Apple and even Netflix, bringing in more revenue for all lower league clubs.

The History Of The Blackout

timetableIn its most original form, the television was created in the 1920s. It was feared that it would kill the theatre and other such forms of entertainment, with people refusing to go out of their homes and instead remaining in to watch things on one of the few channels that they had available to them.

As you might imagine, football Chairmen were no exception to such fears, with the Chairman of Burnley Football Club, Bob Lord, deciding that the broadcast of football matches onto televisions would mean that fewer and fewer people would go to matches.

So concerned was Lord about this happening, he decided to gather together his fellow Football League Chairmen and persuaded them that they should impose a blackout on live matches being televised on a Saturday afternoon.

In Lord’s mind, the televising of a major game, such as Liverpool versus Manchester United, would mean that Burnley fans would choose to stay at home and watch that rather than head down to Turf Moor to see what the Clarets were up to. If this happened, said Lord, the amount of money made by lower league teams would be adversely affected, so they should do something about it.

In actual fact, the specific rule stopping football from being broadcast in the United Kingdom only dates back to 1987. That is because UEFA, the governing body for football in Europe, put Article 48 into its statutes. That gives member nations the right to select a two-and-a-half-hour slot in which no live football can be shown.

When ITV signed a lucrative deal with the Football League in 1987, the UK decided that it would take advantage of Article 48 and 2.45pm to 5.15pm was chosen as the time that the blackout would take effect.

No Football Can Be Shown

tv blackout iconThe interesting thing about what has become known as the 3pm blackout is that it affects all football matches bar one game. Should a broadcaster have the right to show Spanish football, for example, then the fact that La Liga’s evening games kick-off at 5pm means that any coverage of a match between, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid can only begin at 5.15pm.

This, in many ways, points out the ludicrousness of the 3pm blackout rule; how many Burnley supporters, or fans or Altrincham or Wrexham for that matter, are likely to miss their game to watch the opening 15 minutes of El Classico?

The only game that is an exception to the rule is the FA Cup final. This was traditionally shown at 3pm on a Saturday, with the logic being that the football season was over by the point that the FA Cup final was being played and so the blackout wasn’t protecting anything.

As the FA Cup final moved earlier and earlier the season, a decision was taken to move the kick-off time to 5.15pm, though this was seen by most people as an attempt to cash in on audiences in the likes of China and the Far East rather than because of the blackout.

Why The EFL Is Considering Scrapping The Rule

change the rulesWhen the suggestion emerged that the English Football League was considering scrapping the 3pm blackout rule, a statement was released saying the following:

“The league is taking a fresh and new approach to this latest rights cycle, inviting proposals that embrace innovation and offer contemporary solutions that cater for changing audience habits.”

In other words, the EFL thinks that a rule that was brought in around 60 years ago confirmed nearly 40 years ago might not be suitable for the digital age.

Indeed, Eleven Sports decided to show two rounds of matches from Serie A and La Liga during the blackout spot back in 2018, leading to complaints from the FA and UEFA. They stopped showing matches, but said in a statement that the blackout is ‘unfit for the modern, digital era’.

Speaking on the matter on behalf of the Football League, Chief Commercial Officer Ben Wright made reference to the EFL’s ‘rich tradition and distinguished history’ but said that there is a ‘desire to evolve, grow and innovate’. The hope is that by scrapping the 3pm blackout rule, the Football League would be allowed to grow the audience further.

In reality, though, it is less about growing the audience and more about making as much money as the division possibly can. After all, having the ability to show 3pm matches would ensure that the EFL could charge far more than £595 million for the rights.

How Would The Rule Come To An End?

streaming football on a mobileWhilst the English Football League might like the idea of scrapping the 3pm blackout in time for the next broadcast rights deal, how would they actually go about making it a reality?

The first port of call would be with the Football Association, which would look to canvas its members and stakeholders. The governing body appears to be happy with the status quo at present, so there doesn’t appear to be much of an appetite to scrap it. If it wanted to, however, UEFA could take the matter to its congress in order to scrap Article 48.

At the time of writing, the only countries that actually use Article 48 are England, Scotland and Montenegro. With that in mind, the likelihood is that any request to remove Article 48 would be met with support from UEFA member nations. The problem is, the FA would be the ones to put the suggestion forward to UEFA rather than the EFL and the lack of appetite within the country’s governing body to do so would make it unlikely. The biggest hope for the Football League could actually come from a different country, such as Spain.

Should there be a desire for La Liga clubs to be able to increase its revenues by broadcasting its matches in the United Kingdom, the Spanish FA could put a suggestion to scrap Article 48 forward to the UEFA Congress. Whilst the Football Association in England might object, it wouldn’t matter if the rest of the UEFA members decided to vote in favour of getting rid of the blackout.

The question is, would it be worth the fight with the FA for UEFA to even allow such a thing to be tabled, or would they agree with the Football Association that the status quo is fine?

Does It Even Work?

Question markOne of the big questions about the blackout is about whether it even works. One of the best places to look when exploring such a question is Germany, given the fact that the Bundesliga has a similar attendance record to the Premier League. All matches are televised in Germany, yet the occupancy rates in stadiums remains above 90%.

The suggestion, therefore, is that allowing matches to be broadcast live doesn’t stop people from attending top-flight games. In Italy, meanwhile, the attendance rate stands at a less than 70%, with all matches being televised.

The difference between Germany and Italy suggests that it isn’t whether matches are televised alone that has an impact on attendance figures. Everything from the price of attending the game through to the infrastructure that allows fans to get to stadiums will make a difference.

That, of course, is how things are in the top-flight, but the same sort of argument can’t be made about the lower divisions. There is certainly an argument from some quarters that ending the 3pm blackout would have a detrimental effect on the rest of the footballing pyramid.

The Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, Kevin Miles, pointing out that match day attendances are the envy of the rest of the footballing world, even in the ‘non-league and grassroots’ levels of the game. He said:

“Everyone is responsible for maintaining that environment in which football at all levels can not just survive, but thrive — so the professional game should exercise extreme caution before contemplating the end of the 3pm blackout. Removing the blackout would have dramatic consequences for the pyramid, many unforeseen, which is why FSA members up and down the pyramid have strongly resisted any relaxation of this protection.”

One thing that is worth bearing in mind is that the 3pm blackout rule was abandoned during the global pandemic. At the time, of course, there were no matches for people to attend as crowds were not allowed into football stadiums, but the very fact that it was lifted shows that it isn’t just some sort of set-in-stone scenario that can’t ever be tampered with.

Indeed, the decision to lift it during that period shows that it is a way of allowing more people to experience and enjoy football than would otherwise be able to do so, drawing attention to the rather idiotic nature of the ban’s introduction in the first place.

Is The Blackout Realistic?

tv background remote foreground yes no written on itThere is certainly an argument that the 3pm blackout would work in a completely honest world in which people only watch football matches that are televised or when they attend the games in person.

The reality, however, is that that isn’t what happens. The simple truth of the matter is that people that wish to watch a match at 3pm are able to do so, irrespective of whether they have a ticket to attend the ground or the match is being broadcast on Sky Sports, BT Sport or one of the other channels. Such is the nature of streaming that those that want to watch a football game will be able to.

As a result, the notion that the 3pm blackout protects lower league teams is nonsense. If someone wants to go to watch Halifax Town play Boreham Wood then they will do so, regardless of what is on television. Equally, if someone chooses to watch Liverpool play Brighton & Hove Albion in the 3pm kick-off, then they will find a way to do so without needing the match to be broadcast live.

The fact that it isn’t being shown on television won’t stop them from finding an illegal way to watch the game and pretending otherwise is naïve in the extreme.

Instead, people are breaking the law up and down the country every week in order to get around an archaic rule that simply isn’t fit for the modern era. Those that wish to watch Liverpool play Brighton aren’t going to forgo that experience and attend a match between Scunthorpe United and Woking instead. That just isn’t going to happen.

It is also ludicrously unrealistic to say that a globally famous club like Liverpool can only have less than 50,000 people watch the match legally in the country that the club is from simply because the game is played at 3pm on a Saturday.

Not only that, but you would be able to watch the same match entirely legally if you were in Spain, Germany or the Far East. Why is it that British supporters are being stopped from watching matches featuring clubs from their country but fans in other countries can watch the games without a problem?

It doesn’t sit right with most people that such a level of unfairness has become common place, all thanks to a rule that was brought into being by a club Chairman around 60 years ago.

Ultimately, of course, it is likely that money will win. The Football League will realise that it stands to make significantly more money per club if a deal can be struck to allow them to broadcast their own matches. Once the 3pm blackout has been removed for the EFL, it won’t take long for the Premier League to decide that it makes sense to remove it for their own benefit.

Given that the current TV deal goes up until the end of the 2024-2025 season, don’t be surprised if we begin to hear noises about such a move in the coming months. Television didn’t kill theatre and it won’t kill lower league football either.

Would An Increase In Betting Follow?

high street betting shop graphicWhilst the removal of the 3pm blackout is unlikely to have as much of an adverse affect on the lower leagues as some people might like to suggest, one thing that will concern campaigners is the likely increase in betting patterns. People tend to place bets on live events that they’re watching, irrespective of whether or not they have any investment in it.

Many people will place a wager on a football match not involving their team, simply because they’re watching it and they therefore feel like they understand how the game is playing out.

If the 3pm blackout was to be removed and every single English Football League match was broadcast in some form or another, the chances are that the amount of money bet on them would increase as a result. Whilst this might delight betting companies, who have a close relationship with football as a sport, it increases the risk to people from the dangers of gambling.

From risks of mental health problems through to the likelihood of financial issues, betting is an activity that many believe should be curtailed rather than further encouraged. Campaigners, therefore, would be keen to avoid more opportunities to bet.

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