Time for TV freedom for football

There were two big Scottish Cup replays this week. Kilmarnock v Rangers and the Edinburgh Derby between Hibs and Hearts. Both as it turned out resulted in victories for the Championship teams Rangers and Hibs. Either – or both – would have been excellent matches for live TV coverage but neither were shown. More to the point neither were allowed to be shown. That is because there were Champions League matches being played on the same nights (the 16th and 17th) and in a pathetic example of protectionism UEFA do not allow any country to show domestic matches at the same time as Champions League matches. Which begs the question : Why? The Champions League is the globe’s most popular club competition. It does not need protection. Scotland does not even have a team in the Champions League. How on earth would Scottish Cup ties threaten the Champions League’s superiority? And in any case shouldn’t viewers have a choice of what they want to watch? It’s called competition. Every other industry believes in it. The rule is probably illegal anyway. UEFA used to have the opposite rule saying that FAs could ban matches from other countries if domestic matches were on – the infamous Article 14. This rule was eventually declared illegal in court. Sky TV should take UEFA to court to get this rule abolished. It is highly likely they would win.

But this lack of support for consumer choice does not just apply to UEFA. There is a rule in the UK that Premier League matches that kick off at 3pm UK time cannot be shown live on TV (in fact any match that kicks off at 3pm cannot be shown so if say Real Madrid or Barcelona match kicks off at 3pm Sky can’t show that match either). More ridiculously the ban lasts until 5.15pm so that if Real Madrid v Barcelona kicks off at 5pm on Saturday as it did in 2014 Sky cannot show the first fifteen minutes. Pathetic.

What annoys me is that this only applies to the UK. Fans abroad can see the 3pm kick offs live. Even in the Republic of Ireland they get a 3pm kick off live on Setanta Sport. Why should foreign fans get extra games live?

Why football is allowed to get away with this antiquated protectionism is a mystery. Even other sports don’t have blackouts. For example during the cricket season England’s Test and One Day International matches are shown live on Sky but County matches are played during the Tests. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) don’t black out Test matches to protect County cricket so why should football be allowed to protect the lower divisions? Lower division matches are played on Champions League nights when games are shown live so why not on Saturdays?

If I were in charge every Premier League match would be live on TV. With one caveat. In the US every Major League Baseball (MLB) game is shown live on line. But the matches are not shown live in the home team’s market unless the home team agrees.  A UK equivalent would mean that Liverpool and Everton could stop their home matches being shown in Merseyside, the Manchester clubs could do likewise in Greater Manchester and the London clubs could do the same in Greater London.

The Premier League is missing a trick here. Baseball has an internet site – MLB.TV – and a mobile /tablet app – At Bat (the latter I use and it is excellent).  For a yearly subscription you get every MLB game which is not subject to blackout regulations. Why the Premier League does not have a website or an app to stream it’s games is a mystery. An MLB.TV subscription costs up to $129.99 a year. I’m sure there are a lot of fans – especially abroad – who would be willing to pay to see Premier League games on their computer, mobile or tablet and it would be a useful revenue stream for the Premier League. And if the example of baseball is anything to go buy it will not effect TV rights. An example : The LA Dodgers’ current TV deal is worth $8.35 BILLION (yes Billion!) over 25 years. That equates to $334 MILLION a year for one franchise. Puts the money in the Premier League into perspective. But it shows that the existence of MLB.TV and At Bat has not affected the sport’s TV revenue.

But surely the public should have the right to watch the games they want on TV. In society protectionism is dead and free trade is the principle. What has football got to be scared of by enhancing free trade? In fact they should be forced to. The Government should make both UEFA’s rule and the Premier League blackout illegal. Time to get in line with society.

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