iFollowing The Football League To The Ends Of The Earth

by | Oct 22, 2018

When a deal was signed to bring regular highlights from the Football League to a television audience, the chairmen of some clubs were less than happy at the development. They believed that increased television coverage would lead to lower attendances when Match of The Day came on air, and their most vocal cheerleader was the Burnley owner Bob Lord, who banned all television cameras from Turf Moor. Earlier in the decade, when the deals had first been announced, Burnley were one of the powerhouses of the First Division, having finished in each of the top four spots in the final league table between 1960 and 1963. Presumably Lord didn’t believe that his club wouldn’t need the attention of out-of-towners.

By the time that Burnley’s ban was lifted in 1969 – and it would return sporadically throughout the following decade – the club was into its third consecutive season of finishing in fourteenth place in the table. One more would follow before the club was relegated in 1971 and Burnley would spend only three more seasons in the top flight – between 1973 and 1976 – before an absence that would last until the club’s promotion to the Premier League in 2009. Bob Lord himself died in 1981, a couple of years before the broadcasting landscape shifted again with the arrival of live Football League matches in England for the first time since a brief (and unsuccessful) experiment in 1960.

It has been suggested before that the 1960s brought about the industrialisation of professional football in England. As the first generation of supporters raised on televised football grew up throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the biggest clubs hoovered up thousands of floating supporters and started to solidify their positions, and as time wore on the idea of smaller clubs becoming permanent fixtures at the top of the First Division became increasingly fanciful-sounding. Derby County were the champions of England in 1972 and 1975, but were relegated again in 1980. Aston Villa were the champions in 1981 and became the champions of Europe the following year but were relegated in 1987. League champions and twice European champions Nottingham Forest were relegated in 1993 as the departing Brian Clough’s magic spell over the club faded away to nothing through a miasma of alcohol. Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1995 but were relegated four years later. Leicester City remain in the Premier League… for now.

The media landscape has changed enormously since Lord introduced his ban, more than half a century ago, but if he started spinning in his grave with the arrival of live Football League matches in 1983, it’s not difficult to imagine that spinning to have become a blur with the Football League’s decision to expand its iFollow platform to all matches not being played during the three o’clock blackout on Saturday afternoons. Previously limited to overseas viewers who wanted to watch matches on a pay per view basis, supporters in the UK can now also watch any match that isn’t playing at the traditional kick-off time on a Saturday afternoon and which isn’t been shown live by Sky Sports at a cost of £10, an amount of money that can either be considered less than half the cost of a match day ticket or twice the £5 per match that overseas subscribers are charged, depending on how generous we’re feeling.

They’re not the only ones doing it, either. From the start of this season, Sky Sports has made all midweek Championship matches available live on their red button, a move considered to be part of an aggressive placement against their rivals BT Sport’s Champions League coverage. And for those who don’t consider this to be enough, Eleven Sports, owned by Andrea Radrizzani, the owner of Leeds United, routinely broke the three o’clock blackout with the live coverage of matches from La Liga and Serie A before finally bowing to pressure last week and confirming that they would no longer be doing so. In the case of Eleven Sports, the company wasn’t breaking any rules because they broadcast online only, an La Liga believe that they were right to do so, stating that, “We continue to believe that the blackout is outdated. Eleven Sports is taking the right steps to challenge the blackout and we support them.”

Last week, the Football League released the results of their first three months of iFollow in the UK, and the headlines were, broadly speaking, as follows:

  • There have been a total of 130,000 live video streams across all Football League matches, of which 80,000 came from overseas, whilst 50,000 were domestically based.
  • An estimated 11,000 viewers have used the service from overseas, from 165 different countries,
  • The Championship derby match between Ipswich Town and Norwich City, played at the start of September, has been the most-streamed match so far, with 2,500 streams in the UK and a further 600 from overseas.
  • The majority of streams to this point have come from more than 25 miles from the home stadium for the matches concerned.

It’s important, at this stage, to bear in mind that the numbers of streams being reported as “viewed” is almost certainly an under-representation of the number of people actually watching them. It’s impossible to say for certain, but it seems unlikely that every stream will be watched by one person alone. The streams are supposed to be watched on mobile phone or tablet only, but hooking a mobile phone or tablet up to a television is hardly an insurmountable challenge, so the idea of small groups of people pooling their resources to watch matches together seems considerably more plausible than anything like every stream being watched by one person and one person alone, especially when the Football League is charging £10 to stream it in the first place.

Working out the number of people watching matches online might not be an exact science, but attendance figures for the first three months of the season haven’t made for especially happy reading for the supporters of Football League clubs. Analysis by The Times last week showed that there has been an 8.8 per cent drop-off in attendances for the three rounds of midweek Championship games that have been played so far this season in comparison with weekend fixtures, where as the comparative drop-off last season was just 4.4 per cent. League One, meanwhile, has seen a 13 per cent decrease in attendances for their midweek matches, while that figure is 20 per cent for League Two. It’s fair to say, as the Football League chairman Sean Harvey already has, that other factors beyond and increased availability of matches on internet connected devices could also be having an effect on attendances, but it certainly feels like a stretch to say, “Well, you can’t prove that it’s iFollow that’s having this effect” and just leaving the matter at that, and it certainly feels as though it’s more than just a coincidence of some sort.

The Football League was heavily criticised last month, however, after pushing its new platform into Saturday afternoons on the five weekends over the course of the season during which there will be international breaks. UEFA regulations state that these matches can be excluded, but the owner of Accrington Stanley, Andy Holt (one of the few people to speak out over this with any degree of consistency over the last few weeks), claimed that clubs weren’t told during the summer that these matches would be included on iFollow, and an official statement from the club read that, “Mr Holt feels that Article 48 of the UEFA statutes [which deals with broadcast regulations] was not discussed at the summer conference in Portugal, with no debate taking place regarding any exceptions to the existing blackout on domestic coverage of Saturday afternoon fixtures”, whilst the Football Supporters’ Federation described the blackout as a “tool to protect lower-league clubs” and stated that it was “disappointed” games on Saturday afternoons would be streamed with this loophole as cover for the decision.

What is curious about this particular decision on the part of the Football League is that they elsewhere indicate that they remain – in terms of rhetoric, at least – passionate defenders of the three o’clock blackout, with Harvey stating that, “generally, we are of the view that nobody should be able to broadcast games live into this country as the football authorities here collectively determine that Article 48 should apply.” There is an element of weasel wording about this, though, because international breaks are already excluded under Article 48 but will involve weekend matches. If the Football League is so vehemently opposed to the three o’clock blackout, we might well wonder, why did they allow it to be broken at this time, rather than keeping it in place for these weekends as well, as a matter of principle?

There are solutions that could make all of this a little more palatable for smaller clubs and supporters, but the likelihood of much changing to the benefit of the latter of these two groups seems remote. The Football League could undertake to underwrite all losses from smaller attendances, but even calculating this in the first place as a monetary figure would be extremely difficult (if not impossible), whilst changing the schedule or the cost in any way would require competing bodies with very different interests – leagues, clubs, governing bodies, broadcasters – sitting around a table together to agree common causes that benefit supporters. No, that doesn’t seem very likely either, does it? And £10 sounds like a lot to stream one football match until we remember that match tickets in the Championship can often touch the near-comical figure of £40. Empty seats for matches might be as much about that as about a few thousand people streaming matches and watching them at home.

Critics of the three o’clock blackout argue that many were streaming matches illegally from abroad anyway, but the taboo associated with law-breaking, the low quality of many of the streams and malware-infested links that they came covered in meant that they were always too much effort for the overwhelming majority of us, and it did feel as though the number of people who were illegally streaming matches was probably being overstated, somewhat. As with any form of media, there will always be a dedicated few for whom not paying to consume becomes, in its own way, something akin to a matter of principle. But when we pause to consider how long how long illegal streaming has been going on for and what has happened to the value of television broadcasting contracts over the same period of time, it starts to feel as though there has always been an element of “home taping is killing music” about the apocalyptic warnings made about the threat to come from this form of streaming. Streaming endorsed by leagues which run seamlessly, however, are a different matter. They may not necessarily be an across the board Destroyer of The Football, but we’re already seeing signs of their negative effects and, critically, this is something that the Football League can control.

When it comes down to it, though, professional football in this country clambered into bed with television over a period that lasted for more than three decades. The game is now as dependent on the money that broadcasters will pay as it is on supporters and as such it is likely that, in the fullness of time, all matches will likely end up being shown live on some medium or other. The problem with this, however, is that technology is finite, and that television as a medium will die over time. It’s been perfectly evident for years that the future of broadcasting is online, in an arena far more scattergun than the stratified world of broadcast television, with its rationed number of matches per week and strict scheduling. It seemed to take a long time for some within the game to even get to grips with streaming beyond an understanding that illegal streaming was A Bad Thing, which led to the game of whack-a-mole that has been going on in that arena for several years. Illegal streaming will never go away, but all concerned have to be seen to be doing something about it, even if its effects probably aren’t as pernicious as sometimes claimed. Indeed, we’d argue that the claims of how pernicious it is are a part of this battle.

But the suspicion remains that those who ultimately make the decisions over which direction these matters will take might not completely understand what or who it is that they’re dealing with. The breakthrough of Amazon into the streaming market for the next Premier League television contract hints at where we may be headed next – “non-traditional” broadcasters moving into the market as what are now known as “disruptors”, upsetting the way that things have been done for, ultimately, their own benefit – the idea should be familiar to Sky Sports at least, since their 1992 coup de’etat in association with the twenty biggest clubs in England at the time, for moving domestic, top flight football irrevocably towards pay TV in the first place. Will they continue to fund professional football’s lavish lifestyle in the short-term? Probably. Will they in the medium-to-long term, though? Well, that’s difficult to answer, but if it’s possible to imagine broadcasters who could care less about match-going supporters in the UK… well, here they are. Will they perform to our satisfaction? Well, we shall see.

In this pumped-up, testosterone-filled world of #engagement, #numbers, #influencers and, ultimately, #money, though, who will be the winners and who will be the losers? This is a question that the Football League should really be taking a great deal of care over, because they do not, on the whole, represent the #bigplayers. The move towards a model of streaming matches may well be desirable for Football League clubs (although it’s far from certain that it would be), but desirable for Football League clubs is only worthwhile if it’s desirable for the supporters of those clubs as well. And this brings us back to the ultimate question that underpins every argument that ever seems to pop up regarding the future of the game: for whose benefit, exactly, is professional football being run? Whatever the answer to that question may be, it so seldom seems to be “supporters” that any cynicism over the best intentions of anyone involved in this particular rush towards yet another form of #monetisation is pretty understandable.

It’s possible that Bob Lord was right and wrong at the same time. The televising of football matches was never going to significantly impact upon attendances when all that could be seen was an hour or  two of highlights per week, all broadcast long after the actual event itself. Every single match being streamed live, however, is a different kettle of fish to the visions that filled the club chairmen of the 1950s and 1960s with such fear, and just because we haven’t quite reached football’s saturation point just yet, this doesn’t mean that such a point can’t or doesn’t exist at all. We don’t believe that the 3pm blackout will remain in place for very longer. The UK is the outlier in terms of the enforcement of this UEFA rule over almost the entirety of Europe already, after all. There’s every chance, however, that the end of this blackout and the move away from the old pay TV model to whatever comes to replace it will come to define the shape that the game will take in this country over the course of its next half-century. It is, therefore, important that the Football League doesn’t fluff its lines over this. Because this is the Football League that we’re talking about here, though, remaining positive as its new streaming platform eats into clubs’ midweek attendances is something of a challenge, to put it mildly.