Every now and again the subject of the 3pm blackout rears its head, namely whether or not it should be scrapped.
In case you don’t know, in English football there is a legally-enforced blackout on televising Saturday 3pm kick offs, hence why televised games are always moved from that timeslot.
The policy was adopted in the 1960s as a means of preserving matchday attendance – why bother going out into the cold when you can roar your team to victory from the comfort of your own living room.
At the time it made sense. Gate money was how football clubs survived. A lot changes in 60 years though, and now ticket money is mere petty cash to the leviathan that is football finance in 2022.
At the top end of the English game gate money is irrelevant. On the back of sponsorships, TV coverage and licencing deals it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that the Premier League could be broadcast from empty stadiums every week and the financial situation of clubs would change little.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved this – the only sticking point for clubs during that time was not playing at all. Playing behind closed doors was just a minor inconvenience so long as the games and their associated broadcasts took place.
This has led to the argument to keep the blackout changing its form. Instead of protecting attendance in general, it now protects lower-league attendance. Unable to get a ticket to a Premier League game? Those fans will go and watch a lower-league game instead; were the blackout to be done away with those same people would stay home and watch the Premier League game on TV, giving a kick at the turnstile to a club who actually needs the money.
It’s a nice thought, but again in recent times we’ve had this theory tested: streaming.
While it’s illegal to broadcast 3pm kick offs in England no such restriction applies internationally, and the Premier League has happily sold off 3pm broadcast rights to foreign markets. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except for the fact that it’s not too difficult to go online and find illegal streams of these international broadcasts, allowing English people to circumvent the ban and watch their favourite Premier League team’s 3pm kick off from home.
The Premier League claims it is investing a lot of money into cracking down on these streams, though one suspects they’re pursuing it with the same vigour they pursue ticket touts given that ultimately it doesn’t harm their bottom line too much. But this is a sideshow to the main point: the streams have been available for several seasons now, and its effect on matchday attendance in the lower-leagues is negligible.
Yes, there are fans who are supportive of both a Premier League and a lower-league team, and will attend both teams’ games where possible, but these are a tiny minority. The majority of football fans are loyal to one particular club, and that loyalty will be at the crux of their decision making. If they can’t get a ticket for a Premier League fixture, their second option won’t be to scout out what lower-league games are going on around them, it’ll be either to find somewhere to watch a broadcast of the game or do something else entirely. Anyone who would choose instead to go to a lower-league game is someone who would be going to lower-league games anyway, it is not drawing a new audience to a new arena.
Having watched English non-league football for over a decade, what brings fans who would otherwise stay home into a stadium isn’t a blackout, but a lack of a clash. If you’re not playing on the same day as the local Premier League side you’re liable to pick up a few extras, but I use the word ‘few’ deliberately. Were that Premier League match taking place at the same time, there would be a drop off in attendance but not large enough to be noticeable.
Football is still built largely on loyalty and tribalism, and the vast majority are anchored to a particular club. Even if they are frustrated and disillusioned with said club, few will tear themselves away from it and go and watch someone else.
As the Premier League has grown we have seen all of the things that would supposedly help the lower-leagues play out: oversubscribed stadiums, too many daytrippers, increasing costs, fan-unfriendly kick off times, outrageous displays of greed from owners. Yet, the Premier League is still near-capacity every week, and lower-league attendances change little.
The 3pm blackout is not some final bulwark protecting lower-league football from being decimated as the nation instead tunes into a television broadcast, rather it is the last standing portion of a fence that was demolished long ago. Any damage modern football could do to the grassroots has already been done in different ways.
The 3pm blackout is one final token gesture from history that remains in place so authorities can say ‘look, we’re doing something’ when in reality it does nothing at all. Football already belongs to the handful of Megaclubs, so why persist with the fiction that there’s something that reins in their influence?