This might sound strange now, but the NFL was once terrified of television. Decades before the League ascended to become the most popular show on five different networks, it was widely assumed that TV had the potential to offer a product that would far surpass the in-stadium experience.
The alarming corollary of this, many concluded, was that TV would decimate ticket sales and wipe-out team revenue. Indeed, the League was so concerned about the threat from the airwaves that in 1973 it established the infamous, and currently-suspended, “Blackout” policy. The rule, which remained in place until 2014, dictated that a home game could not be televised in the team’s local market if all tickets were not sold-out 72 hours prior to its start time. The last team to suffer a TV blackout was the hapless Buffalo Bills in 2013.
Although the NFL’s now largely-defunct rule might sound strict and entirely unnecessary, it’s really nothing when compared with the television restrictions that govern England’s Premier League. The 3pm Blackout rule, which was implemented in the 1960s, dictates that no games whatsoever can be broadcast live between 2:45pm and 5:15pm (that the rule gives 5:15pm as the cut-off has resulted in the bizarre and inexcusable situation where Sky Sports is unable to show the first 15 minutes of 5pm La Liga fixtures).
The rationale behind the rule is, of course, to encourage attendance (and protect finances) at all levels of the football pyramid. However, in practice the 3pm Blackout has become a policy from which the Football League derives benefit and the Premier accrues losses. Much like the NFL, the Premier League is now TV-proof: Attendances don’t suffer at mid-week fixtures when fans are given the option to either attend a local PL game in person or stay at home and watch the same fixture on Sky Sports. And for some time now, anyone with a computer and a modicum internet savvy can stay on their sofa and watch any fixture they like – and Premier League attendances have still never been stronger.
It’s in this sense then that the 3pm Blackout policy makes sense only from the perspective of the Football League – and specifically Leagues One and Two. After all, it’s fair to assume that if, say, the North London Derby were broadcast at 3pm one Saturday afternoon January, Leyton Orient might see its gate receipts dip just a tad. The guardian of English football, the FA, sees protecting the likes of Orient and its fellow bottom-tier competitors as a duty, and the preservation of the 3pm rule is its primary weapon in fulfilling this obligation. Thus, the zero-sum policy that is the Blackout rule isn’t going anywhere – unless, of course, there is an alternative that can benefit both the Premier League and the three divisions that sit below it in the pyramid.
CFB: An Unlikely Success
To find a consensus solution to the insanity of the Blackout rule, we must look across the Atlantic to the United States. There, we can find two well-established football leagues (albeit football of a slightly different code) that have wisely resisted the temptation to compete with one another. The NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (known simply as College Football) and the NFL are complementary leagues that share fans and own different days of the week – and both have never been in better shape.
By playing exclusively on Saturdays, College Football has – with the help of ESPN – been able to carve out its own identity, and, against all the odds, has been able to stay out of the shadow of the otherwise monolithic NFL. It does not pretend to be competitor to the League, but is instead a unique product with an identity entirely separate from the professional game.
Although College Football would certainly survive if it were to go head-to-head with the NFL (it’s difficult, after all, to image Alabama fans watching anything other than Alabama), sharing the weekend the NFL would likely damage the majority of College Football programmes. Would, for instance, a Washington Huskies game sell-out if the Seahawks were playing on the same day? Would anyone go to a Rutgers game if the Giants were playing on Fox on the same day? And conversely, what kind of attendance would the LA Rams get if USC were playing in a nationally televised game against Stanford on the same day?
It’s possible that in each of the above scenarios nothing would change. By why risk it? College Football knows it owns Saturday, and the NFL knows it owns Sunday. Why compete when you can have a day to dominate all by yourself?
Dividing the weekend
The Premier League and Football League can learn from the College/NFL example. Through assigning each league its own day, the blackout rule could be lifted, allowing every Premier League game to be televised without sacrificing the finances of struggling lower-league clubs who would find themselves with a monopoly each week. This would also be good news for Scottish football: the SPFL could move its entire slate of games to day the Premier League isn’t in action, ensuring that fans get up off the sofa and back into stadiums not named Ibrox and Parkhead.
Although it would be nice to have the Football League as the starter and the Premier League as the entrée, midweek Champions League commitments would likely dictate that the latter’s games be played on a Saturday. In any case, were top-tier fixtures to be restricted to just one day each weekend, there’s simply no question that the fortunes of the Football League would improve: For a 24 hour period each week, the Football League would be the only show in town.
Although Premier League fans might lament the loss of top-flight fixtures on a Sunday, consider this trade-off: if every Premier League game were to be televised on a Saturday, the FA could – and should – insist that the league expand its TV partnerships. While Sky and BT would still show the lion’s share of games, it would be smart to allow the BBC and ITV to show one or two games each Saturday. The abolition of the archaic Blackout rule could then herald the return of free-to-air Premier League football – a huge victory for UK-based fans.
There is then a way to eradicate the Blackout rule without damaging the Football League – and the success of College Football shows us how to do this. But whichever way it works out, there’s no doubt that the we need to seriously re-visit an archaic rule that discriminates solely against fans based in the UK. When fans from across the world have the option to watch any game they like, there’s no reason why British spectators shouldn’t be granted the same luxury.