Last Friday I was an invited contributor to The Conversation. The piece is based on an earlier version drafted below.
The Conversation article can be found here.
In the early 1960s the chairman of Burnley Football Club, Bob Lord, successfully lobbied others in the Football League to prevent games being broadcast an Saturday afternoon. As a result, the “3pm Blackout” was born and exists to this very day.
Lord’s motivation was straightforward. He was worried televised football would negatively impact match attendance. He wasn’t alone in his thinking and other sports grappled with the same fear. For Lord, it was a simple demand and supply issue, for what he believed were substitute products.
He may have been correct. Almost all income generated by clubs in the early 1960s came from the turnstiles. There was no broadcasting revenue, and little or no merchandising and sponsorship. The thoughts of the North London Derby or Liverpool against Manchester United at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, broadcast live to a population with almost no access to sports content, were enough to convince Lord and others that the football business model could not survive with this form of competition.
Fast forward to 2021 and football in England could hardly be more different. The globalisation of the games since the late 1990s, has transformed many English towns and small cities into famous locations. Players and managers are now sourced from almost every country on the planet. The Premier League has become one of England’s best exports, with supporters arriving each weekend from around the globe to cheer on an adopted team.
The economics of the game have been transformed as well. No longer do top flight clubs like Burnley rely heavily on fans coming to games – although behind closed doors football did demonstrate how important fans are to the product – but rather broadcasting revenue, prizemoney, sponsorship and merchandising. Deloitte show that the joined revenues for the 20 Premier League club’s surpassed £5bn in 2018/2019.
While the past two seasons have been Covid-impacted and as a result seen revenues decline, the dropout has been insulated by the evolution of the way revenues are generated. For the elite clubs, matchday activity constitutes less than 20% of all revenue.
So the “3pm blackout” is not terribly important for Premier League clubs today. Especially, when fixtures played in this traditional slot normally constitute Premier League teams not in Europe and never a showcase fixtures, which are instead usually confined to Sunday afternoons.
But English football is far more than the Premier League. The depth of the oldest set of interconnected leagues in any sport on the planet is truly remarkable. While football strongholds such as Spain, Germany and Italy have two or three professional leagues, the English system can maintain professionalism six tiers down. Maybe further. The commitment and partisan nature of supporters and the communities these clubs exist in is what sustains this.
Unlike the elite clubs, the lower divisions do rely much more heavily on gate receipts, so much so that an argument can be made that those down the English football pyramid, still require the 3pm blackout. But does this make sense today?
I think not. The world has moved on since the 1960s. Premier League football is screened each Saturday at 12.30pm and 5.30pm. The lunchtime kick-off does not end until nearly 2.30pm. How many fans of lower league teams will decide not to travel to a game at 3pm because Ronaldo, Salah or Kane is live on television 30 minutes later? Very few I suspect. These players are regularly on television each Saturday yet the 2nd tier of English football (The Championship) is the 5th best attended league in all of Europe.
The television product and attending in person are no longer the substitute goods as Bob Lord feared in the 1960s, if they ever were. A plethora of options are available to people at 3pm on Saturday afternoon – both sport and non-sport – yet League 1 attendances average around 8,000 per game and League 2 just under 5,000 fans.
This is not to mention the possibility of watching 3pm kick-offs any way through streaming services or other means. Yet the Football League persists with a rule that was put in place when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, and long before the arrival of satellite television or the internet as we know it.
The irony of course is that it is possible to legally watch Saturday 3pm games outside of the UK so foreign fans of the Premier League actually get to consume more televised content that domestic supporters. And while the rest of the world will get to watch Ronaldo possibly reappear in a Manchester United jersey this Saturday, those living in and around Manchester without tickets to Old Trafford will have to wait until around 5pm to view streaming content or later that night for Match of the Day. A show almost as old as the “blackout” itself.