As fans across the nation celebrate the return of the Premier League this weekend, we are certainly not left wanting for interesting fixtures.
Spurs will host United, whilst the Merseyside derby could see Liverpool take their penultimate step to winning the Premier League. And yet Arsenal’s trip to the Amex stadium on Saturday is the game which is creating the biggest slice of football history this weekend.
Ninth-placed Arsenal are in desperate need of points in their push to secure a spot in Europe next season. They find themselves eight points adrift of the Champions League, and five from the Europa League spots. With nine matches left, this may be a tall order for the Gunners.
Brighton, on the other hand, continue to looking over their shoulders, as they sit just two points above the relegation zone, in 15th place. Things on the south coast are not looking promising, as the Seagulls are yet to win a game in 2020. You will have to go back to 28 December to find their last victory, a 2-0 win against Bournemouth. That being said, their only other win in December did come against Arsenal; Brighton 2-1 victors at the Emirates on 5 December. So perhaps there is some hope.
Despite the influence that this game may have at each end of the table, there is a more poignant reason for interest in this fixture. Television cameras will broadcast the game live from the Amex from 3pm on Saturday afternoon, making this the first 3pm Saturday kick-off to be televised in England since the 1960’s.
Back in the 1960’s, various club chairmen pushed for rules to be made on the televising of football in England. Well-known fears were voiced about the attendance of lower league games if fans could stay at home and watch the big clubs play on TV instead. As such it was agreed that broadcasters would not show live football between 2.45pm and 5.15pm. The rule stands to this day.
This ban covers Premier League, FA Cup, Football League, and foreign matches. The only exception to this was the FA Cup final, although even that has now found itself pushed back to a 5.30 kick off.
However, since the beginning of the Premier League in 1992, we have seen an ever increasing number of televised football matches. This season, 52% of all Premier League were to be broadcast live on TV – a figure which has increased due to the current format during lock-down, hence the Arsenal-Brighton fixture.
With such a demand for live football, we have also seen a growing number of time slots for kick-offs. Fans can now enjoy Premier League games Friday through to Monday almost every game week, with Saturday fixtures being shown at 12.30, 5.30, and now at 7.45.
In fact, the only weekend where every Premier League match commences at the exact same time is the last day of the season. This takes place at 3pm on a Sunday, so as not to infringe the blackout rules.
So, what does the Brighton-Arsenal fixture signify? Firstly, it is quite clearly just a change in culture, if only for a short period. As the last nine rounds of Premier League fixtures are played out, fans at home will be exposed to Saturday 3pm fixtures for the first time, so could this be the final step towards all matches being televised?
We are in fact the only nation to impose such restrictions, and it does seem somewhat bizarre that English top division matches at 3pm on a Saturday can be watched all around the world live, except in England. In 2015 the Premier League signed a $1 billion deal with NBC which gave them broadcasting rights to every match until 2022.
The debate over the blackout is certainly not a new one. In 2011, Advocate General of the European Court of Justice, Juliane Kokott stated “it is, in fact, doubtful whether closed periods are capable of encouraging attendance at matches and participation in matches.” And certainly there is no denying that fans’ ability to stream matches online, regardless of its legality, means that the blackout isn’t exactly watertight.
Furthermore, with the fan bases of many Premier League clubs exceeding the capacity of their stadia, there is an argument that fans cannot follow their own club if they are playing at 3pm on a Saturday. Although it certainly must be noted that the bigger clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United almost never play at that time, such are the demands for them to be broadcast live.
Or for worse?
There are some genuine concerns, however. Firstly, there is an argument for tradition. As so many other aspects of the game are changing, whether for the better or not, the fact that this last vestige of tradition remains does have some appeal to it. Having to wait for Match of the Day in the evening to watch the highlights of all the games does have a degree of nostalgia to it.
Football fans are also becoming increasingly frustrated that television rights continue to be split across more and more companies. As BT, and Amazon receive more fixtures, if the new deal to be brokered in 2022 does include 3pm matches there is still no guarantee that fans will be able to watch the team that they support unless they pay for all three of these outlets.
The old arguments perhaps still remain. If every single Premier League game were televised, would that reduce the number of fans turning up at lower league football? Certainly purists may argue that if you are a real fan of a club, you will support them no matter what league they are in, even if you could go and watch the Manchester derby in the comfort of your own living room.
This is probably a bit of a naïve statement, and things aren’t always as clear cut as that. Needless to say though, the current global situation has shown above all how much smaller clubs rely on gate receipts, so the chance to further jeopardise this by lifting the blackout is perhaps a risk that is just not worth taking?
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