Earlier this season, we witnessed the resurfacing of a television coverage issue that has been taken at face value for over 60 years now.
Back in the 1950s, the ‘3pm blackout’ rule was introduced by the Football Association (FA) in a bid to protect attendances at English football league fixtures. This was an era where 90% of games were played on Saturdays in the mid-afternoon. The specific blackout period, when no live football is allowed to be broadcast on English television, is between 2:45pm – 5:15pm on Saturdays. The only countries where such a law is still implemented today are England, Scotland and Montenegro.
The other reason the FA brought in the regulation was to help preserve grassroots football. It was in the hope that more young players and amateurs would continue playing in the district leagues if the appeal of live football on TV was removed during this time. An old but noble reason.
The topic raised its head in the UK just three months ago when digital broadcaster, Eleven Sports, decided to defy the law and showed two live Spanish La Liga fixtures during the blackout period.
The online streaming service is the creation of Leeds United’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani. The Italian businessman and his Eleven Sports UK company decided to challenge the FA’s ruling head-on.
Eleven Sports currently holds the rights to show La Liga and Serie A football in the UK having outbid Sky Sports and BT Sport, respectively, during the summer. Radrizzani’s organisation eventually had to back down in the argument and agree to adhere to the blackout guidelines.
“Out of respect for the wishes of our partners, we will, for the time being, no longer show matches during the Saturday afternoon blackout period,” Eleven Sports said in their official statement on the matter.
The firm also went on to add that they felt the ruling was “unfit for the modern digital era”. It was suggested by Eleven Sports that maintaining such a law was simply playing into the hands of illegal streaming and IPTV services.
“The blackout is one of the biggest generators of piracy in the UK. These games are very easily accessed on illegal sites online and it is naïve to think that fans do not want them because they are not shown on legitimate platforms, except betting sites,” their statement mentioned.
While Eleven Sports may have agreed to abide by this ruling, for now, it is surely only a matter of time before the question is asked again – is there any real benefit to this decision which was taken in the 1950s?
This law was passed in an age long before subscription TV services such as Eleven Sports, Sky Sports and BT Sports were available. It was from a time when free-to-air channels were the only signals arriving at your TV and you were at the mercy of what your national broadcaster decided to show on any given day.
Fast forward over 60 years and television coverage is widespread, instant, and available on all media platforms. Amazon secured the rights to UK coverage of tennis’ US Open a few months back and it’s only a matter of time before the likes of Facebook, YouTube etc delve deeper into the world of live sports streaming.
If you go down the illegal route you will have access to live feeds of any UK match you want from the country’s top two football tiers – the Premier League and the Championship. It is this ‘black market’ area of football coverage that Eleven Sports claimed to be up against during the blackout period.
However, as archaic as some codes may seem, when in existence for so many years – one could also argue that because of the age we live in with advanced technology and immediate access to worldwide sports coverage, maybe the 3pm blackout decree is now more relevant than ever.
There has been a common theme bemoaned by thousands in the Premier League era – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Well, the 3pm blackout rule at least tries, in some way, to protect the lower league clubs who need the support of their local communities. These smaller clubs are not sheltered by multi-million pound TV deals. They need the feet through the turnstiles, the people in the seats, the pies purchased at half-time.
While we pay more for football coverage to be at the level it is now, there is no harm, and quite a lot of good in preserving one chunk of a Saturday afternoon for ‘local’ football. Get your kids out to see their team and maybe they’ll grow to love some small-time heroes instead of the big names we all know of.
Keep the 3pm blackout rule while there are still lower league clubs to support.