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Martin Ross | Saturday 3pm blackout – is the antiquated legislation on borrowed time?

Ronaldo’s recent second debut for Manchester United thrust the quirk of the UK broadcast landscape back into the limelight. SportBusiness’ global news editor looks at the cases for and against

Martin Ross, global news editor

The late Bob Lord is not a name that receives much airtime at industry conferences.

The former chairman of Burnley was, however, the driving force behind a legislative anomaly that continues to spark debate among football stakeholders, rights sellers and armchair fans alike.

The Saturday ‘3pm blackout’ rule resurfaced in many a pub conversation and social media timeline as Ronaldo returned in a match not shown live domestically. Cue outrage and no shortage of misinformation on the subject.

So how did we get here?

The blackout was first enacted in the 1960s, the same decade in which Lord banned the BBC from televising matches at Burnley for its new Match of the Day highlights programme. With ticketing and (betting) pools the only revenue streams of note, Lord convinced other Football League executives to prevent Saturday afternoon broadcasts in order to protect match attendances during an era when all fans paid at the gate.

The legislation has been upheld by England’s Football Association and the Scottish Football Association by invoking Article 48 of the Uefa statutes, preventing live broadcasts of domestic or foreign matches during a window of 2.45pm to 5.15pm on Saturdays. Montenegro is the only other European country to have adopted a similar blackout. In its defence of the blackout, the FA flags up the need to protect match attendances and grassroots participation in the game.

Along with the Ronaldo example, the issue has flared up on two other occasions in recent years.

The live streaming of Saturday 3pm matches from international leagues by bookmakers came under the spotlight during a crackdown on the gambling industry and the debate around domestic FA Cup matches being shown by the same betting companies.

Three years ago, Andrea Radrizzani and his Eleven Sports operation flouted the legislation by showing LaLiga matches during the sacred timeslot. In doing so, the broadcaster labelled the UK blackout rule as “one of the biggest generators of piracy”, before ultimately backing down.

It’s clear to see how the legislation would irk anyone buying or selling rights in the UK. It seems skewed that decisions made by English club chairmen in an era that predated the sale of live rights continue to shape the availability of match coverage in an era of immediacy.

Yet, it’s not that simple.

Marcelo Bielsa, the manager at Radrizzani’s Leeds United, has described the rule as ‘magnificent’ for prioritising the game over commercial interests. And therein lies the beauty. The rule is in place to defend revenue streams further down the food chain, not to top up the commercial revenue streams of football’s elite.

It is there to encourage the casual supporters who turn up at lower-league matches and provide clubs with vital ticketing and food kiosk revenues to add to season ticket monies from fans who would be in attendance anyway, blackout rule or not. It’s about encouraging habits that, coupled with scraps from the table of football’s elite, help to keep the football pyramid alive.

Yes, that argument won’t wash with anyone devising a model to drive up centralised revenues for the leagues in England or in Scotland, where the live rights to just 21 per cent of Scottish Premiership matches are sold. Any other European league of note sells rights to all of its domestic matches.

The legislation is also on shaky ground legally. In 2012, the European Court of Justice cast doubt on whether the blackouts encouraged attendance at all. There was a feeling that the rule could have been scrapped had Eleven challenged it through the courts.

Yet, I can’t bring myself to bow to commercial or legal logic.

The 3pm blackout rule feels like the last bastion of football from a bygone era. An exclusivity reward for season ticket holders who know that attending the match is the only way of watching it live (unless you’re au fait with illegal streams, hiding your IP or pubs with illegal decoders). A unique quirk of the working-class history of the UK game.

Even the debate around it seems to split generations. Fans growing up in the digital era shuddered at the thought of having to wait until 5.15pm to access (legal) footage of Ronaldo’s goalscoring bow against Newcastle United on Sky’s website and app. Despite gorging on any Uefa club or national team competition match live, or the majority of matches from Europe’s other major leagues, UK-based fans felt they were being ‘robbed’ of one of the major appointments during an appointment-to-view era.

The frustration also comes off the back of a season in which the pandemic led to the temporary lifting of the rule. And when the Premier League is once again selling all 380 live matches to broadcasters in continental Europe.

It’s a tough one for fans to get their heads around and an easy one for the industry to criticise.

But any financial gains at lower league level are worth protecting. As global football threatens to eat itself with biennial World Cups and breakaway threats, the retention of the legislation feels like a victory for the footballing purist and the little guy.

And it’s how the Lord would want it.

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