Most football ‘fans’ don’t even watch football on TV

Date published: Wednesday 22nd September 2021 9:50 - John Nicholson

TV-camera-football

The 3pm blackout, which means no live football can be shown on TV in this country from 2.45pm to 5.15pm on Saturdays, has been in existence since the early 1960s when the clubs and the FA decided putting live football on television on a Saturday afternoon would reduce attendances right through the league.

They had no proof of this and they still don’t, but it’s a view that has held sway ever since. Controversial butcher and Burnley chairman Bob Lord wouldn’t even let MOTD cameras into Turf Moor for five years, never mind cameras for a live game, once saying at a Variety Club dinner in 1974: “We have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run TV.”

Some have tried to argue this wasn’t anti-Semitic, but the fact many walked out at this point suggests otherwise. Bryan Cowgill, head of BBC Television Sport, and his independent television counterpart, Bill Ward, sent a joint telegram of protest to Sir Andrew Stephen, chairman of the Football Association, and Len Shipman, president of the Football League, urging them to repudiate Lord’s remarks as “not being in the interests of football or honourable behaviour”. They described Lord’s remarks as “abhorrent and obscene”.

Yet the anti-Semitic Lancashire meat purveyor’s standpoint on 3pm broadcasts still remain endorsed by the authorities.

All research done across Europe has long suggested putting games on the TV does not affect attendances at all. Why would it? It makes little sense. Yet the idea that people will not go and watch Hartlepool United if Cristiano Ronaldo is on the TV, is still believed by some, as bizarre as it might seem.

Indeed, our own Ian King argued in favour of the 3pm blackout earlier this month.

It is an argument that does not understand who we are and how or why we watch football. It relies on several misplaced and outdated notions, the first being that live football is actually popular on TV at the moment.

Obviously back in the early 60s we were talking about games being on BBC or the new working-class oik interloper, ITV, and being broadcast to many, many millions. That is not the modern world. As it is, live games on Sky and BT Sport often get low viewing figures around the 200,000 – 300,000 mark and rarely break the two million barrier.

The majority of football supporters are far less interested, or not interested at all, in games that do not involve their club. This still doesn’t seem understood by football’s authorities. It is as if they don’t know their own game. While some of us will watch any football, anywhere, anytime, we are far from the majority. People who are obsessed with football too often forget that most people who like football are not so daft about it. They will support their own team, watch highlights on MOTD, the occasional big cup game on the BBC and that’ll do them. They know football can be very tedious and see no reason to pay a subscription of any kind to watch. It’s a decent lifestyle. So unless the blackout happens in conjunction with the removal of the paywall, there are not that many people for live football to lose in the first place.

No other league across Europe has a blackout and it has been proven in Germany that there is no impact on attendances. When games are live on Sundays or Mondays in the UK there is no measurable reduction of attendance at that game, or at any other game played around the same time.

However, in contradiction of the blackout policy, live radio broadcasts are allowed and have up to 1.8 million listening on 5live on Saturday afternoon, a bigger audience than for many TV games, and yet are not deemed to have a negative effect on attendances.

Of course, if the 3pm blackout was removed, football and its broadcasters may find that some games are being watched by just a few thousand people. We’ve all got other stuff to do. We’ve got lives to live. Relationships to enjoy. Other arts, sports, intellectual and cultural pastimes to indulge in. We don’t all want to be glued to a TV, slack-jawed passively staring at football. So, if the blackout was lifted, I doubt most of us would even notice that much, but it’d be nice to have the option to see it and more than that, there is no point in such a restriction.

Football is the people’s game, so why stop people from watching it?

That this old-fashioned, outmoded notion is still governing our game, and our game alone, is as ludicrous now as Bob Lord was back then and like the Burnley chairman, it belongs in the past.

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