No prizes for guessing that United feature heavily in the TV table this season. But what does it all mean for the traditional Saturday 3pm? Is it too late to save it? Sam Dalling dives deep into why we should care and how we can fix it. Careful, we are into manifesto territory here…
“If Saturday (3pm) don’t come soon, I’m gonna lose my mind.” It is June and Tyneside is reverberating with those sweet lyrics. They echo down St James’ Park to the quayside, Sam Fender leading scores of thousands on a merry dance. The mood? One of joy.
But many of those present will also hold the same sentiment in anger. Why? Because those words apply equally to the convoluted exercise of diary management forced upon United fans by the myriad Premier League TV deals.
The once traditional football slot, the one etched in permanent marker, the one protected by UEFA’s “blackout law”, is dying. What started as a convenient hour that allowed factory workers to down tools with just enough time to scramble to the turnstiles pre-kick off, quickly became the pivot around which weekends, lives even, were built.
Now, that sanctuary is being knocked down. True Faith is going to explore what can be done, and whether indeed we actually care?
Crunching the numbers
New Year’s Eve 2022. United are battering Leeds nil-nil. Who could have predicted then (albeit doubtless no-one was even giving it a thought at that point) that this would be United’s last Saturday 3pm of the season at SJP?
But now that Leicester is a May Monday, 2023 shall be a minimum of 224 days old until it sees the traditional slot occupied. And that assumes…well, you know what that assumes.
The upside – if that is the right word – is that forking out north of a 100 notes a month will have earned access to every minute of United action bar victories over Brentford and Southampton this calendar year. As a Steve Brucey bonus, the finest of Sky, BT and Prime’s offerings will also have been a click away.
United’s “popularity” (or perhaps a desire to see failure) means that 27 parts* of the 22/23 league revolution will have been televised. Record-breaking coverage for United in the top-flight and, by the way, six of those not available on a laptop came in the first dozen matches.
Nine is a fine number for a centre-forward, but it is less acceptable when it represents the quantity of Saturday 3pms. These have been bookended (home and away) by a trio of post-brunch kick-offs and a quintet of tea-time starts. We’ve played on each weekday, and a dozen times on the sabbath.
At SJP, just six of United’s league games have occupied the traditional spot: five came before Halloween.
Of our octet of cup games, six were on TV. The Sheffield Wednesday embarrassment was broadcast on the Beeb, while the lion’s share of our Carabao Cup run – victories over Bournemouth and Leicester excluded – were available on Sky.
NEWCASTLE UNITED LEAGUE 2022/23
|Sunday 1.30/ 2pm||6|
Why not show Saturday 3pms on TV?
For some of you this may be old hat, but currently, showing a Saturday 3pm on the TV is prohibited in England.
Article 48 of the UEFA Statutes, which dates back to the 1950s, gave associations power to impose a blanket ban on televised live games during a 2.5 hour slot on either weekend day. It also means that, for example, Sky cannot show Bundelisga games live at 3pm on Saturdays either. The restrictions were relaxed around the pandemic, but are now back in place.
There are complex legal arguments as to how the blackout could be challenged. True Faith is not going to dive into a legislative pool here.
The key though is that the blackout is voluntary, rather than mandatory. Spain, Italy, France etc. do not enforce it. It leads to a slightly odd situation where UK viewers could buy all possible subscriptions, and only be able to watch a game if they were holidaying abroad.
What are the practical implications for supporters?
While there are some that devote their entire lives to the following of their football team, most do not. Most care passionately but also have other interests, commitments, desires to be fulfilled. Trying to plan around a moving centre point is, at best, awkward. Really, though, it is both infuriating and costly.
Since the introduction of first Monday and then Friday night football, even planning a weekend away does not provide any guarantee that the match will actually be watched.
Trains are fucking expensive. They were before 5 March, and became more so when bumped by an average of 5.9%. And that is when they are actually running. We should just be thankful that we have an east, rather than west coast train line. Petrol costs are rising, as are those of life in general.
Plus there are the intangibles; the opportunities missed; the relationship goodwill that can be worn away; the family time lost. The counters of beans do not give a flying F.
But do we really care?
Look, the idea that all traditions are untouchable is fanciful. There is plenty wrong with the idea of maintaining the status quo for the sake of it. Doing so, in many instances, provides more issues than solutions. Antiquated and outdated views, actions etc that cause harm have no place in society.
But not here, though.
Midway through a Saturday afternoon is the sweet spot. It allows match-goers certainty, an immovable pivot for family, personal, wider life. There is time to run errands, to be with loved ones, to have evening plans.
And most important of all, it feels right. Worshippers of any religion know what times they go to pray, to belong. Perhaps it is a little trite to draw the comparison, but the reason the analogy is trotted out so frequently is that it rings true.
Most day-to-day lives are hectic. The ‘organisers’ amongst any friendship group (and everyone knows who that person is!) have a virtually impossible task of scheduling meet-ups. These days, WhatsApp polls or spreadsheets are circulated, with available dates inputted.
Football cuts through all that. Same time, same place, every other week. The calendar comes pre-populated. And If I’m ever flying solo to a match, I have the comfort of knowing that, at a certain watering hole near the ground, I will find familiar True Faith faces.
Now that is fragmented. Sure the fixtures are still there but life’s practicalities get in the way. And for those who enjoy a pre and post match stiffener (which is by no means everyone), the attraction of doing so mid-afternoon on a Sunday is diminished.
Football is all about rituals, of belonging. It is not something that can properly be experienced through a screen either. The smells, the sounds, the feelings cannot be replicated by any number of finely cut montages. To be there is something quite special.
That is increasingly being diluted.
You made your bed though…
Now here is the twist. And it cannot be ignored. The Faustian bargain has long-since become a multi-million dollar agreement. The soul has long since been in corporate hands.
There is an argument – and it is a legitimate one – that chowing down on the fingers that feed is dangerous. But for broadcasting contracts, there would be no Joe Willock, no Callum Wilson, no Joelinton. If it is the difference between Frankenstein’s Brazilian midfield destroyer and not, then put every game at Thursday 6am. I’m joking….I think.
The question is then, what is there to be done? Given United now will be requiring passports in some guise or other next season, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
How do we fix it?
No one likes an unsubstantiated moan. Sure, have gripes but don’t just add to the problem. Provide solutions.
1. Lose the blackout.
It makes no sense anymore. According to the Telegraph, 200 of the 360 Premier League games are currently broadcast on the box and this is set to rise to at least 260.
There is to be an exemption, and a royal one at that. Manchester City versus Leeds will soon be a Saturday 3pm. It has come about by accident rather than design. City are in the Champions League semis and the new King is getting crowned. And we can’t have anything clashing with the latest in the line of privileged, hereditary, peers being anointed, can we?
When 70% of games are set to be available on demand anyway, why even have a blackout at all?
2. Reaffirm the sanctity of the Saturday 3pm.
Guarantee each club a certain number of home games in that slot. Half would be lovely but given European commitments that is perhaps fanciful. But a nod to what we all love would be most welcome. And, combined with no blackout, would not really cost those making the puppets dance too much, would it?
3. Feed the money further down the chain
One of the key drivers of the blackout was the protection of lower league and grass roots football.
The idea that United’s attendances would dwindle if 3pm Saturday’s were televised is the proverbial pastry dish up in the stars. But that was never the point. The point is that if Premier League action was available at that time, there might be knock-on impacts lower down the pyramid. Those otherwise inclined to pop out and watch their local league or non-league side, might prefer an armchair viewing instead. The ticket revenue further down the food chain is vital.
The EFL’s current deal with Sky Sports is worth circa £595 million, and runs until the end of the 23/24 season. That is negotiated separately, and naturally as much value should be extracted as possible.
But that does not prevent the Premier League clubs chipping in. Arguably, if we move to Saturday 3pm games being on the box, they have a moral (**cough, cough**) obligation to do so.
The latest Premier League deal is a rolling one that ends in 2025. It is worth £5bn, and remember that is domestic alone. The overseas numbers are similar. Would it really be too much to ask for a little trickle down to protect the wider game?
Remember, most top-flight sides are happy to allow others to develop their young talent. Does it have to be so one sided?
A counter-point is that it is now purely about money. For lower league sides, people through turnstiles is also future proofing. They want the next generation of fans to fall in love. That, then, perhaps needs careful thought.
4. Announce TV alterations earlier
This has improved in recent years. The Premier League gives a series of dates by which the various tranches of televised matches will be announced. There is no accountability if they miss the deadlines, but by and large they are adhered to.
But why not push them into earlier decisions? They will argue that they need to know which games are going to matter before scheduling changes. Given the sheer volume of games available, though, the ears on which that argument falls are growing increasingly harder of hearing.
And let’s be honest…there are a decent chunk of fixtures that are never going to be left untouched.
5. Achieve by unity
The least likely of all suggestions. Perhaps one that has long gone. And it is easy to see why: values rise with competition, and so, if the various players were working together, the attraction for the shareholders would fall (along with the price paid for the product). But the idea of having one central platform for subscribers would be real nice.
There is no silver bullet. No one measure alone can address all the issues. To some extent, we have reached the point of no return. But not on everything. We must act before it is too late.
Sam Dalling @SamJDalling
** This is like to rise to to 28. The TV schedule for our visit to Chelsea will be announced during the week of the match, although all 10 Premier League games are simultaneous 4.30pm Sunday kick-offs.