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Opinion | Take back the control

Kevin Roberts says that the Premier League will only see off the threat of illegal streaming if it is allowed to take a fresh look at Saturday afternoon broadcasts…

I may not have mentioned this before, but I once became a subscriber to Chelsea TV by accident.

It was seven years ago this month that Chelsea played a pre-season friendly at Selhurst Park, where I have been watching Crystal Palace put their fans through the emotional wringer for the last four decades and more.

For Palace, then in the second tier of English football, the Chelsea game was a big deal, but, unusually, I couldn’t make it.

However, the match was being shown live on Chelsea’s own TV station, delivered via Sky, and at around £6 ($7.60/€6.80) per month, it sounded like a good-value way of watching the game.

Naturally, the plan was to unsubscribe as soon as possible, but it wasn’t until September – that’s September two years later – that the shocking truth dawned.

Not only had I paid around £150 in monthly subscriptions to watch a fairly non-descript friendly, but I’d been inadvertently feeding the coffers of one of the richest clubs in football.

Football history

This came flooding back last month when the EFL (English Football League) announced it was to make live streaming of its games available to fans outside the UK – dependent on local broadcast arrangements.

The EFL is home to three tiers of English pro football clubs below the Premier League and includes a host of names which are part of the fabric of football history.

Now, for £110 per season, fans from Mumbai to Manitoba can subscribe to the League’s iFollow streaming service and watch every game of the season. Bearing in mind that’s 46 games, it represents pretty good value.

Games featuring the likes of Aston Villa and Leeds United, as well as other strong former top-flight clubs with big fan bases and, one imagines, a sizeable diaspora, should do well.

Those with average gates of less than 2,000 will presumably attract limited interest.

Football fans will applaud the EFL’s initiative, because it gives them access to their teams and it will be interesting to see how, given the extremities of scale and popularity of the clubs, the business model works out over time.

While the EFL expands its horizons in the most realistic way, the Premier League is looking at falling domestic audiences. According to the Financial Times, Sky’s figures were down 14 per cent last season.

At the same time, the Premier League is getting even tougher on illegal streaming, which appears to be a growth sector. Every matchday millions of people watch Premier League action for free, often in foreign languages and with poor-quality video.

The entire business of sport is based on creating value and then selling rights, and nobody reading this needs reminding of the role media rights play in the global football economy. If rights are your offer, they must be protected.

Intellectual property

The Premier League recently explained its stance and rationale to The Guardian newspaper: “Like other sports and creative industries, our model is predicated on the ability to market and sell rights, and protect our intellectual property. It is because of this that clubs can invest in and develop talented players, build world-class stadiums, support the English football pyramid and schools and communities across the country.”

They’ll get no argument against those sentiments here.

However, just because fans in the UK will watch low-grade coverage in languages they don’t understand, it does not follow they are unwilling to pay. It means there is a pent-up demand for content which isn’t made available under the current broadcast rights deals.

So, the question is, what needs to be done to bring those watching illegal streams inside the tent and make them customers rather than criminals?

Live league football was opposed in the UK for years because of fears it would hit matchday attendances.

Even today there is no live domestic football to clash with 3pm Saturday kick-offs, one of the factors which drives fans to streaming.

However, average occupancy for most Premier League grounds is generally in the high 90-per-cent range, with some claiming over 99 per cent.

If you are not a season-ticket holder, getting into a game is a prized trophy, so there’s not much of an argument that making more games available on TV would hit clubs at the gate.

Premium PPV product

As every single Premier League game is produced to the highest levels for overseas live distribution, why can’t every game be shown in the UK, perhaps as a Premium PPV product through one of the existing broadcasters or a new category of rights-holder? 

The offer wouldn’t even have to be a blanket arrangement and might – as in the US – be made available only when a certain percentage of seats, including the away allocation, has been sold.

That would be most games, most weeks, so the issue would be the price point and establishing how much a fan would be prepared to pay to watch full HD quality coverage of their team with comprehensible commentary and analysis.

I’m sure there’s somebody at the Premier League doing the sums and if they don’t base it on an idiot spending £150 to watch a friendly, they could be on the way to completing an already-excellent offer.

It might even provide a way round the sh*t storm which will break out among fans if live Saturday evening games are introduced and fans are prevented from travelling to away games by poor transport, the subsequent cost of hotels and/or the threat of divorce.

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