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Another nail in the coffin for live football?

This is a story from the SD archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

In 1955, avid Burnley FC supporter and son of a local barber, Bob Lord, rose to the position of Chairman of Burnley FC. The early days of his chairmanship oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history, seeing them become league winners in 1960 and FA Cup finalists in 1962.

Two years later, 1964 saw the first broadcast of Match of the Day, a weekly programme showing football highlights from across the league.

A vocal critic of televised football, citing that it would “damage and undermine attendances” Lord not only banned the BBC cameras from Turf Moor for five years, he successfully convinced fellow league chairmen that televised matches on a Saturday afternoon would negatively impact the attendance and income of those clubs not televised.

As a result of Lord’s actions, the broadcasting “blackout” was introduced. An agreement made by the governing bodies and leagues in English Football that no matches would be permitted to be televised live between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday within the United Kingdom.

Today in 2018 football, at all levels of the domestic game and from across the globe, graces our screens almost seven days a week. You can flick through the vast array of Sky Sports channels and guarantee you can find a match to watch at almost any given time of day or night. Despite this accessibility the one thing that remains sacred is that if you want to watch 90 minutes of football from 3pm on a Saturday it will be from the terraces not from behind a screen. That was until this weekend.

UEFA Article 48 is the section which covers the rules on football broadcast across its members.

It states that each member association may decide on two and a half hours on a Saturday or a Sunday during which any transmission of football may be prohibited within the territory of the relevant member association.

The two and a half hours period must be decided on by the member association fourteen days, at the latest, before the beginning of its domestic season, at which time they will enter into force and apply for the whole season.

The present regulations are designed to ensure that spectators are not deterred from attending local football matches of any kind and/or participating in matches at amateur and/or youth level, on account of transmissions of football matches which may create competition with these matches.

Last season the EFL launched its own subscription package, ifollow. For £110 a season it allowed non-domestic residents to watch English Football League matches live on a Saturday afternoon. This season the service was extended to domestic residents, offering the chance to stream live matches that fell outside the 3pm blackout times following a new broadcast agreement with Sky.

This weekend gone, the EFL invoked exceptions, made due to the international break, to broadcast a full schedule of League One and Two matches live at 3pm on Saturday via iFollow.

You could say it is purely coincidence that Northampton Town, Exeter City, Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Sunderland all suffered their lowest league attendances of the season so far on Saturday. I say there is no such thing as coincidence.

It isn’t just the attendances at the televised games which suffer, how many chose to sit on the couch and watch a game from behind a screen this weekend than attend a local non-league or amateur match?

There is much talk of “growing the game” “increasing participation” and ensuring future generations engage with live football, but when the vast majority of youngsters have already been priced out of attending matches at the top flight is scrapping the blackout going to encourage them to attend and cheer on their local teams? Or will this create a generation who chose convenience over feeling the exhilaration of celebrating wildly on the side-lines with their friends as the ball hits the back of the net?

Are fans for life made behind screens or on the terraces?

The overriding design behind article 48 is to ensure that spectators are not deterred from attending local football matches.

As a supporter of my local tier six team, I can unequivocally state that attendances are affected on those midweek games where the local Premier League or Football League teams are being shown on the box. Non-league has been engaged in this battle for many years and the consequences are clear to see with falling attendances and the number of clubs suffering financial depravity, unable to entice fans from the grip of broadcasters.

We have a football pyramid envied the whole world over. We do what no other country does in sustaining regular competitive football leagues across multiple levels, from the highest echelons of the game right down to the most amateur.

Every game matters, isn’t that right EFL?

There is only one reason for this decision. The one overriding reason behind all the bad decisions that have thwarted the modern game. Money. Money for the broadcasters, money for the leagues, money for the clubs? Maybe. But the one thing that is guaranteed is it will do what money always does, float to the top.

Last week Andy Holt of Accrington Stanley openly slammed the Football League’s decision to stream a number of its fixtures live. He stated that no debate took place between the EFL and member clubs regarding any exceptions to the existing blackout on domestic coverage of Saturday afternoon fixtures at the EFL Summer Conference in Portugal and despite member clubs being written to at the beginning of July, the broadcasting exceptions during the international break were not highlighted in any form of detail.

Mr Holt wants the opportunity to be consulted and the chance to debate these changes and the impact they will have. If the member clubs are not afforded this opportunity will the games most important stakeholders have their say? Will the fans get their consultation? Almost eight and a half thousand fans completed the FSF’s National Supporters Survey in summer 2017 with an overriding 72.7% voting in favour of keeping the 3pm blackout, will their voices be heard or considered?

Bob Lord was renowned for speaking out against those seeking to damage the integrity of the game, you might call him the original rebel Chairman. Bob’s spirit of standing up to the football authorities lives on today with his passion and fire echoed by individuals like Andy Holt, even if his legacy is close to being torn down.

Is this another nail in the coffin of live football that heralds the beginning of the end? I for one won’t resign myself to allowing the game as we know it to go quietly into the good night.

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