This morning’s EU ruling has given the Premier League has some serious thinking to do. For the media the first question has been will watching football at home become cheaper? But the more fundamental issue in this discussion isn’t how much fans will pay broadcasters, but when they will be able to watch the matches themselves.
Some background. Unlike the UK, where the FA imposes a TV blackout of football matches played at 3 p.m. on a Saturday, European broadcasters can show these matches freely. In the UK, a third of Premier League matches are screened live. Sky and ESPN are required to show each club a minimum number of times, but there is also a maximum. In short, every broadcaster in on the continent (assuming they pay the Premier League a suitable price for the rights) can broadcast every Premier League match live, Sky and ESPN cannot.
So, what happens to Saturday 3 p.m. fixtures in light of the ruling? Now that the Premier League have a de facto requirement to sell the same rights packages accross Europe will they refuse to sell the Saturday 3 p.m. matches within the EU? They might. Often these matches are not glamour fixtures, Sky and ESPN having shifted the more attractive games to other points in the weekend already. But how much revenue would the Premier League lose in following this route? My suspicion is it’s more than they’d like.
At least 12 Manchester United matches this season will not be broadcast live in the UK, but they will be shown live everywhere else in the world. If you’re a Manchester United fan living in Spain, watching only 26 of your teams league matches when previously you had been able to watch every single one is a big loss, and you wouldn’t expect your cable or satellite company to charge you the same price for an inferior service. It follows that broadcasters selling inferior products, and crucially, fewer opportunities for advertisers to publicise wares on their channel, will not pay the Premier League the same price for the rights either.
So how to solve this revenue problem? The answer might be to stop any Premier League matches taking place during the FA blackout, eliminating the traditional Saturday 3 p.m. kick-off altogether. Could a Premier League weekend look like this?
Saturday 12:45 – 1 televised match (early kick-offs are important for Asian broadcasters)
Saturday 17:30 – 1 televised match (clubs featuring on Tuesday nights in the Champions League would have to play their matches on a Saturday)
Sunday 12:00 – 1 televised match
Sunday 14:00 – 5 televised matches (shown by competing broadcasters, or behind a red button service)
Sunday 16:00 – 1 televised match
Monday 20:00 – 1 televised match
A schedule such as this would mean every game could be broadcast everywhere in Europe. Clubs could protect their gates by imposing blackout restrictions on matches which have not sold a certain proportion of tickets (say 75%). But a sensible counter balance to such a policy would place the clubs on hook for lost TV revenue, encouraging the sale of cheaper tickets for local fans.
There are of course significant downsides for fans here. Gone will be the Saturday 3 p.m. kick-off, a tradition kept alive only by the Football League. Public transport on Sunday’s, particularly on trains, is notoriously difficult to negotiate too, so an inescapable consequence of such a move would be that life would be more difficult for away fans.
But there are upsides too. The Football League would have Saturday afternoons mostly to itself, encouraging higher gates at clubs where significant income is often lost to bigger teams in competing catchment areas. And, if we’re honest, the Europa League is now making a mockery of the Saturday 3 p.m. tradition anyway, it isn’t uncommon for just four or five Premier League matches to be played at that time.
For the Premier League there is a choice between tradition and money, it’s not a choice they’ve had trouble wrangling with in the past. By the time Leicester make it to the Premier League, the price to pay for admission to the big time might be the end of a Saturday afternoon tradition.