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Culture secretary: Premier League considering free-to-air matches

Britain's Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives for a meeting of the cabinet at 10 Downing Street (by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Football’s English Premier League is considering providing matches on a free-to-air basis if its 2019-20 season resumes, according to UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

The 2019-20 campaign is currently on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Premier League on April 3 indicating that matches will not resume at the beginning of May, and that the postponement period had been extended indefinitely.

Speaking at a Department for Culture, Media and Sport committee meeting, Dowden was asked by chairman Julian Knight if the Premier League should be shown on free-to-air television if it resumes behind closed doors. This would be in an effort to avoid the scenario of fans travelling to their friends’ houses to watch games via live rights-holders Sky and BT Sport, the pay-television broadcasters.

Dowden said: “It’s a very good point and I’ve raised exactly this challenge to the Premier League in the talks I’ve had with them. I’ve said to the Premier League in particular that it wouldn’t send the best signal if they were the first, or one of the first, major sports to restart behind closed doors and the public at large wouldn’t have access to it.”

When questioned further on whether this could result in games being offered by public-service broadcaster the BBC or commercial broadcaster ITV, Dowden said: “I’m certainly not going to jump a further step ahead and begin speculating about the platform through which they might broadcast.

“To your point, if they are being mindful of access points that doesn’t solely have to be moving onto traditional terrestrial matches, or even showing all of the matches. There’s all sorts of creative choices within that, but it is something they should be considering, and they have said they are.”

The English and Scottish FAs this month lifted their bans on the televisual broadcast of Saturday 3pm football fixtures for the remainder of the season, in a move that suggested both bodies are preparing for a possible resumption of domestic football behind closed doors amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision paves the way for Sky and BT Sport to show 3pm Saturday Premier League matches, while BT and the BBC could show matches from domestic knock-out competition the FA Cup that kick off at that time. English Football League clubs would also be able to show 3pm matches on the EFL’s OTT streaming service, iFollow.

It had previously been reported that the Premier League could ask Sky and BT to show the 3pm matches on a decrypted signal to allow the widest possible coverage if matches resumed without crowds as a result of the pandemic. But the broadcasters would still be expected to block coverage in pubs to prevent fans congregating in those premises.

Access to matches played behind closed doors has also been a major issue in other European countries. Earlier this week, Lega Serie A maintained it is committed to completing the 2019-20 season amid Covid-19, as Italian sports minister, Vincenzo Spadafora, said he would return to the “very thorny issue” of free-to-air access to games, with matches likely to be played behind closed doors.