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3pm Eternal? Is it time to lift the blackout on televised Saturday afternoon football?

In case you’re wondering. The title is a reference to a massive hit in 1991 for acid house band The KLF (3 a.m. Eternal). The early nineties is where it all changed for football. The birth of the Premier League (there was a time before it believe it or not) meant that live top flight football cemented its place in the television schedule.

And while the acid house craze might have died out, the demand for live football didn’t.

So, is the embargo as outdated as baggy clothes, big beats and bucket hats? Or is it an integral part of protecting attendances at live games. Here we look at the arguments for and against lifting the ban.

UK Law means that Premier League games can't be shown on TV if they kick off at 3pm.
3pm Kick Off's remain behind a blackout

More competition than ever

Perhaps the biggest argument is that clubs face bigger challenges from other entertainment than ever before. Netflix, esports, Xbox...however you choose to spend your time, there’s a number of alternatives to attending live football. Would televising a game during the blackout really pose such a big threat? Or would it keep football clubs front of mind, in the shop window as it were?

There all available anyway

Especially when you consider that it’s not very difficult to find a decent, if illegal, live stream of Premier League football. Streaming remains a massive threat to broadcasters and rights holders alike. There’s a younger generation of fans that are used to watching games for free, streamed online from other countries. Would lifting the ban help to curb some of this behaviour if the 3pm’s were available and affordable (another issue entirely)?

Therein lies another point, 3pm kick-offs are readily available outside the UK. Creating a ‘grey market’ where fans of Man Utd in Singapore can watch Red Devils legitimately, while those a mile away in Salford can’t.

Does it work?

In 2007, Portsmouth landlady Karen Murphy was prosecuted for using a satellite decoder to broadcast FAPL games using foreign streams. Later European Court of Justice deemed that blocking feeds from EU contravened free movement of goods. Mrs Murphy’s convictions were overturned by the high court. But as the world gets smaller and more connected, does the blackout stick out like a relic of the old days, not fit for purpose in a day of digital connectivity?

There have been plenty that argue it doesn’t work. Notably in the Karen Murphy case, Advocate General Kokott argued that having closed periods of broadcast was ineffective. Televised games and attending live fixtures offered completely different experiences. The Instagram generation are fuelling an ‘experience economy’ whereby they’re happy to spend their money on live experiences.

Protecting the smaller clubs

Quite whether the ‘experience economy’ extends to a trip to Edgeley Road to watch Stockport (it bloody well should by the way) is a matter for debate. The core principal behind keeping 3pm games behind a paywall is to protect smaller clubs. The football pyramid in England and Scotland is something truly unique and sacred. Other European countries don’t have the depth in support of lower league clubs to support 4 leagues, yet alone the non-league teams. In 2018, Football Supporters Federation, an organisation that does outstanding work in protecting the concerns of fans, found that 70% of supporters were in favour of keeping the blackout in place. Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt claimed last year that lifting the ban would ‘kill income and destroy the atmosphere’ at his club.

Impact on other sports

Not one that will keep many football big-wigs awake at night but it is worth examining. Football remains a colossus of a sport in this country. At a time when top flight football dominates online and offline sports coverage. A time when large broadcasters dread the international break, as if the Premier League is the only thing that matters.

What impact would there be on other sports if Saturday afternoons had another game live on television? This week reports in the Daily Mail suggest that Women’s Super League is keen to pursue coverage of Saturday 3pm kick offs. All of which would imply that there is a market of sports fans to reach at this time.

Understandably, passions run high when it comes to football in this country. My instinct is usually inclined to back the smaller clubs point of view (there’s a reason I called my company Underdog) over the money-men of Premier League. But when it comes to considering blowing the full time whistle on the blackout, we need some more solid research. Take conjecture and our allegiances out of the equation and figure out once and for all whether the blackout works or not.

Underdog Sports Marketing is an independent agency designed to help brands and rights holders create powerful partnerships. The kind that deliver actual business results for all parties.

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