Picking live FA Cup matches is a broadcasting minefield

Ian King
Brighton fans with a tin foil FA Cup

For smaller clubs, the FA Cup is a strange mix of romance and money, but for broadcasters deciding which matches to show live is a headache.


One of the delights of the modern age is the understanding of the breadth of subjects that people can get angry about. Sports Personality Of The Year, Eurovision, naming a boat – take your pick. If there’s a subject upon which an opinion can be expressed, you can almost guarantee rage somewhere in the replies. All of which brings us to televised picks for the third round of the FA Cup. For seven months every year, there’s practically no comment whatsoever on which matches broadcasters have selected for the FA Cup, but when December comes around, the lights go up, the second round is played, the draw for the third is made, broadcasters announce their live matches for it, and… nobody really seems to be happy with it, as usual.

It was announced in May 2019 that the FA Cup would be free-to-air from the start of this season, with the BBC and ITV picking up the rights on a four-year contract. The completion of the second round of the competition has now brought about the broadcasters’ live picks for the third round, and there has been another round of huffing and puffing. For all its talk of ‘the magic of the Cup’, both the BBC and ITV have decided to disregard the smaller clubs that have made it this far, turning their attention to the biggest clubs instead.

Two of the live matches – Manchester United vs Aston Villa and West Ham United vs Leeds United – are all-Premier League ties, while the other four – Swindon Town vs Manchester City, Millwall vs Crystal Palace, Hull City vs Everton and Nottingham Forest vs Arsenal – feature one top-flight club each. The two bottom divisions of the EFL are represented by Swindon Town alone, and the four non-league clubs left in the competition don’t get a game between them.

It’s hardly as though the four non-league clubs don’t have interesting matches in their own way either. Yeovil Town, Boreham Wood and Kidderminster Harriers all have home games against Bournemouth, Wimbledon and Reading respectively. Chesterfield, the only non-league club on the road, have to go to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea. Yeovil vs Bournemouth isn’t quite a local derby, but there are less than 50 miles between the two towns. Boreham Wood and Wimbledon are both based on the periphery of London. Kidderminster are the lowest-placed team left in the competition and will be playing a Reading side which has just been docked six points for breaking the EFL’s financial rules.

Any of these three matches would have been suitable for broadcasts featuring over-sized tin foil cups, cameo appearances from local celebrities and hopelessly over-optimistic pre-match vox pops with fresh-faced kids in suspiciously new looking scarves, but the broadcasters seem to have decided that this is not how they want to show the competition from this stage on. And on the surface, this is completely understandable. Broadcasters want to attract audiences, and the truth of the matter is that Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham, Leeds, Crystal Palace and Everton’s involvement in live TV matches will likely bring in higher audiences than those involving clubs from further down football’s ladder.

And those covering the competition – particularly ITV – are commercial broadcasters, and the amount of money that comes into football through television rights does ultimately come through because a lot of people watch it. The broadcasters will be banking on one of Everton, Crystal Palace or Manchester City coming a cropper in their matches, for a taste of the ‘cupsets’ that audiences crave from this particular competition. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that they don’t know what they’re doing with their scheduling, but they absolutely do.

The smaller clubs who’ve reached the third round will be disappointed at the relative lack of exposure, but they’ll still have a significant payday as a result of their escapades. Clubs receive £22,629 for winning in the first round and £34,500 for winning in the second, and the FA Cup remains one of the few competitions left to make the sharing of gate receipts a feature, offering a degree of financial distribution hardly seen anywhere else in the game.

Chesterfield, the only non-league club to have an away draw in the third round, will receive 45% of the gate receipts from their trip to Stamford Bridge. Ticket prices for this match haven’t yet been confirmed, but even if they were relatively competitively priced at £15, Chesterfield would bank £270,000 from this alone, were 40,000 people to turn out for the match (for reference, Chelsea’s last home third round match against lower-division opposition, against Peterborough United in January 2017, was watched by 41,003 people). These are huge amounts of money for a non-league football club, but the choices of live matches will mean that the non-league clubs will miss out on the £85,000 payment that is made to those who take part in live TV matches.

Of course, there are other ways in which the money football generates could be distributed better, but that’s a conversation for another time. And it’s worth bearing in mind that FA Cup money has tended to be distributed in an extremely uneven manner in the past, with clubs enjoying seven-figure sums for their troubles, while the majority of entrants make barely a few thousand pounds each. The BBC and ITV should have given over a little more time to lower division clubs. Part of the appeal of the FA Cup is that it isn’t all about the top six, or the top 20, or whatever, but this has to be balanced with the needs of broadcasters. Without their money there wouldn’t be very much reward for anybody.