Saturday, the 8th of September 2018 marked a watershed moment in the long and storied history of English football. During the international break last weekend, the EFL streamed 15:00 kick-offs on their iFollow platform to domestic customers for the very first time during the ‘broadcast blackout’, prompting a vociferous reaction in some quarters. Is the new development all bad (or indeed, all good)? This blogpost takes a closer look…
The EFL announced iFollow in May of last year, primarily targetting two key groups of people: ‘exiled’ fans overseas and UK-based scouts and ‘anoraks’ (like the author of this piece), allowing the latter of these groups to play back the same footage supporters in other countries could enjoy live a day after first being broadcast. One of the inadvertent disadvantages of this move was that as a customer, you now became tied to your particular club, unable to listen to the commentary of the opposition your side were facing, which I often found more insightful than Bury’s, as well as being restricted to watching bare-bones highlights on YouTube or Channel 5 (as it was at the time) of any match not involving the outfit you held dear.
I know that the ability to watch games live was extremely well-received by fellow Shakers fans. Kieran Lomax stays up into the small hours of Sunday morning to get his fix in Australia, there now exists a fan club based in Poland and most prominently of all, the Norway branch increased their social media following considerably, especially when posting goal clips to Twitter mere minutes after they had been scored. I have not seen any viewing figures for Bury, but even if they turn out to be in just double figures, it has definitely helped them all feel ‘closer’ to the club they support, and this is bound to be replicated with other teams, too. Although Sunderland are one of several clubs that have chosen not to be part of the iFollow platform, their own streaming equivalent regularly attracts a number in the low thousands from outside the UK, according to new owner Stewart Donald. Either way, it helps to generate revenue on top of the current Sky Sports broadcast deal and that wouldn’t have been present beforehand, which will increase considerably from 2019/2020, whichever distribution model clubs agree to adopt.
However, as the link above alludes to, the streaming of matches within the UK was introduced earlier this season, with the EFL heavily advertising this fact both before the campaign commenced and in the days leading up to its advent. For full disclosure purposes, I took advantage of sadly not being able to revisit Sincil Bank for the first time in well over a decade due to work commitments by watching Lincoln City host Bury. I was under the distinct impression at the time that such instances were solely going to be the preserve of Tuesday night league matches (and Checkatrade Trophy games from the second round onwards) due to the ‘blackout’, until seeing the official Grimsby Town Twitter account promoting the availability of last Saturday’s thrashing to a domestic audience. I was actually quite shocked, which doesn’t happen often.
Slowly but surely, the relentless reposting from almost all of the League One and Two clubs of match streaming being available in the UK got the attention of one of the more vocal owners of an EFL club: Andy Holt of Accrington Stanley. Holt, along with the likes of Darragh MacAnthony and Alan Hardy, is one of the few leading figures at an EFL club to have a considerable social media presence, which he sustains through the good and bad. Through that channel, he has been extremely open with the public regarding Accrington’s finances, as well as his hitherto unwavering support for the EFL’s extremely controversial changes to the format (and entrants) of the Checkatrade Trophy. He, too, was caught out by the news (although his club are not part of iFollow), and throughout last Friday, did some investigating of his own whilst fielding questions from other users.
What he managed to uncover was that the EFL had taken advantage of a loophole in UEFA’s rulings governing the definition of the blackout to their members, which don’t cover periods when domestic football continues during international breaks. Holt was particularly aggrieved, as it was not brought up either implicitly or explicitly during the EFL’s Summer Conference in Portugal, later stating it had been part of the not-at-all daft sounding ‘Project Genie’, and now clubs have been presented with a fait accompli that could be hard to row back from, even if the collective will is there.
Reaction from fans in general has not been as universal in its condemnation as I would’ve anticipated. In a poll I conducted on this topic on Twitter, these were the results:
Firstly, I accept that a poll on Twitter with a sample size of 784 is hardly a) scientific and b) wholly representative of views. However, I conducted it in a completely neutral fashion, refraining from responding to any of the worded responses to my post to ensure it was as ‘ecologically valid’ as it could be in the circumstances.
The worded responses were generally centred upon the themes listed below:
A good thing
Considering 30% of respondents voted for this, I could only find one genuinely upbeat reply without caveats: in a nutshell, they stated that for fans with genuine reasons as to why they can’t attend match(es), it can only be construed as a positive. To expound, it could be the case that a person simply can’t afford to attend any longer, even if they live within spitting distance of the ground. The BBC’s Price of Football survey conducted last year showed that the average price of a matchday ticket even in the fourth tier was north of £20, and that’s without purchasing optional extras, such as a programme or food and drink.
Additionally, I know of several people who have mental and/or physical health conditions that make travelling to games extremely difficult to say the least, but who nevertheless are as much a fan as those who are able to attend in person. Alternatively, someone could have working patterns that preclude their presence at games, but who could still make use of streaming. I have seen conflicting breakdowns of just who receives what when someone buys a match pass, but I think it’s unlikely that the club they support would receive none of the proceeds, even in the worst case scenario.
A bad thing
As you’d probably expect, there were a plethora of these. Chief amongst them was the desire to keep the blackout sacrosanct; many are fearful of the impact a move they perceive as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ would have on both attendances and, as a consequence, the very future of clubs that are mostly reliant on gate receipts as their main source of income.
Others are reluctant even with the convenience that streaming every match would provide to partake, either because of the financial hit to the club, the experience watching away from the ground cannot hope to come close to emulating the authenticity of the sights, sounds, and even smells of being there in situ with like-minded people
Of course, the issue is not black or white in many people’s minds. A proposed ‘workaround’ I’ve seen (and have seriously entertained) is to lift the blackout… but only when tickets for matches are sold out. There was once a similar scheme in the NFL, but that has since fallen by the wayside, and in truth, it’s difficult to compare two sports with vastly different infrastructures.
Along a similar vein, a club could charge the equivalent of a match pass to fans to enter their ‘home’ stadium, with footage beamed back from where their team are playing. This has occurred occasionally in the past, but has usually been confined to special events, such as major international tournaments and EFL play-off games. Widening this scheme to include long-distance away matches could be a way to counter at least some of the criticisms and concerns levelled at this stage.
The elephant in the room is arguably the Premier League. Long gone are the days when even eight or nine of the 10 ‘gameweek’ fixtures kicked off simultaneously, save for the final matchday – Sky Sports allow this to maximise the unfolding drama. Is there an appetite at the top table of the game in England to lobby for the blackout to be a thing of the past?
As you’d expect, the umbrella organisation issued a scathing response to the EFL’s move, making some good points before tripping themselves up with the following paragraph:
"You could say it is purely coincidence that Northampton Town, Exeter City, Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Sunderland all suffered their lowest league attendances of the season so far on Saturday. I say there is no such thing as coincidence."
I would’ve expected a deeper analysis (i.e. any) than a cursory glance of the attendance figures, which even now, not all clubs report in the same way, and the “That many are here? really?” sentiments I can echo from the recent match at Milton Keynes Dons.
Below is a table that details the figures:
They’re all, with the exception of Sunderland, within 1,000 of the average; in the first four teams’ cases on the list, within several hundred. None of the away followings that I could find data for exactly swelled the grounds they visited, with Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town posting some of the poorest away support in any of the four tiers (in terms of numbers). Notts County are unexpectedly propping up League Two, Morecambe is quite a long distance trip from Wiltshire, and Cheltenham Town are also struggling.
Five of the six hosts’ crowds are actually up from 2017/2018 on average. Sunderland’s long-suffering support have doubtlessly been buoyed by the feelgood factor Stewart Donald has brought with him to the club as the new owner, despite plying their trade on the third rung for the first time in 30 years. Accrington Stanley are in the same division as the Black Cats after a well-documented absence of over half a century. The massive caveat is that all of these sides have played just three or four times in the league at home during 2018/2019 to date, so the sample size is simply too small to draw any meaningful conclusions either way, and especially to draw a relationship between correlation and causation in terms of iFollow streaming.
Other Points for Consideration
The ‘Matchday Experience’ vs other comparable forms of entertainment
In some ways, it’s remarkable that attendances are either stable or on the increase in the pyramid. Very few outfits in the top four tiers are sharply decreasing through factors other than a demotion (Blackpool being an obvious exception to that). There are constant myriad complaints about the cost of matchday tickets throughout the divisions, with many supporters being priced out through a whole host of factors too numerous to mention at length in this post. The bottom line is that in the current era, there are many other forms of entertainment that people can partake in that are cheaper or comparable in terms of length and cost to a football match: going to the cinema, a concert, downloading a video game, film or TV boxset (or streaming them), watching other sports (such as rugby and cricket)… the list is endless, and many of these are more prevalent and accessible to more people than ever before.
Take this as an example. Even if you’re a family of fans and your number one pastime is football but the cost of seeing your beloved side from the comfort of your own home is a fraction of the time and effort it would take to get there, you’d be hard-pressed not to at least give streaming serious consideration, especially if your disposable income isn’t very high. If football clubs want to continue to attract young families with children through their doors, they must pay more heed to ensuring that the whole day is a positive one, and firmly focused on keeping them ‘happy’, regardless of the result on the pitch. This could take the form of having fun things to do in or around the ground which are free or as close as possible to being free to participate in. The competition for people’s hearts and wallets is only going to get fiercer in the years ahead.
Local Economy Suffering
One aspect I didn’t see anyone mention in their responses was that of the local economy of wherever the team they follow are playing at that weeknight/weekend. Supposing that attendances did noticeably drop across the board because of the expansion of domestic streaming, there would almost certainly be a profound knock-on effect to businesses and services situated in the town and/or adjacent to the stadium. Pubs and betting shops, not exactly everyone’s forté in the current climate anyway, would be under pressure. The same is likely of restaurants and takeaways, particularly those that are independently run, as they are perhaps less able to absorb any shortfalls. Of course, not every matchgoer frequents any of these establishments at a home or away encounter, but it is equally the case that there is a degree of dependency on football supporters visiting in good numbers.
A meeting has been convened by the EFL, set to take place next week, to discuss this very issue. I predict a similar outcome to the one that concerned the changes to the format of the Checkatrade Trophy. The ‘genie’ has escaped the lamp, and the ‘competition organisers’ will be extremely loath to put it back inside, especially if it deems the experiment last weekend to have been a success in terms of revenue. The EFL will use the broadcast deal set to commence next season as a carrot, and will also point to the increased guaranteed income that the runt of the proverbial domestic cup litter that has come about since the inclusion of U23 sides from Premier League and Championship Category One academies. If they can find a way to convince enough boards that their incomes will be protected by their latest project, expect the majority to fall in line.
From an outsider’s point of view, it has become increasingly unclear to me where the lines between FA, PL and EFL begin. The current burning issue is not going to go away anytime soon, and whilst the FA are still considering the incredibly short-sighted sale of Wembley Stadium, the domestic game at all levels runs the risk of being undercut by a slapdash embrace of streaming, without due care and consideration to the substantial knock-on effects that could well occur.
Personally, I am in favour of what I’d considered to be the arrangement before last weekend. Keep it to long-distance away matches whilst a more coherent strategy is thought up, which needs to involve all the stakeholders, including non-league clubs, many of which often use the international break as a way of enticing those without a fixture to watch to attend. Technology will only continue to advance and intertwine more with football, and whilst in many ways I embrace that reality, I place zero trust whatsoever in the corridors of any of those three organisations to safeguard the grassroots and the clubs a proliferation of streaming will affect the most. If the EFL truly believe that ‘Every Game Matters’, perhaps they should look at adopting the mantra of ‘less is more’ so that football is more affordable for everyone… which will be the focus of my next post.