CRISTIANO RONALDO makes his long-awaited return to Manchester United this Saturday, in a match against Newcastle. Tens of thousands of fans will chant “Viva Ronaldo” from the stands of Old Trafford, but the match will not be televised live in Britain. Instead, fans not lucky enough to be in the stadium will have to turn up the radio or find an illicit online stream from a foreign broadcaster. The rest of the world can watch the game live. Why are British fans not allowed to?
Blame the “blackout rule”. On Saturdays only two matches in the Premier League, English football’s top flight, are shown live, at 12.30pm and 5.30pm. The rest are played at 3pm and not broadcast live. Usually the biggest clubs avoid this fate, but broadcasters put Manchester United’s game in the 3pm slot in July, before Ronaldo announced his comeback. According to the rules of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), members are allowed to decide a two-and-a-half-hour window over the weekend during which live football games cannot be broadcast. The football associations of England, Scotland and Montenegro are the only countries to apply it. In Britain it lasts from 2:45pm to 5.15pm on Saturdays, as it has since the 1960s.
The measure is supposed to encourage football fans to get off their sofas and support their local teams. The idea is not exclusive to UEFA. In America, Major League Baseball has partial blackouts, primarily to give certain small local channels priority over national broadcasters, but also to encourage fans to attend games. Football clubs below the Premier League rely on money made at the gate for around a third of their total income (for Premier League clubs it is less than half of that), and attendance is usually higher on weekends than during the week. But opponents of the rule argue that the blackout does not work. In Football Association Premier League v QC Leisure, a case from 2012 involving the screening of matches in Britain via foreign broadcasts, the European Court of Justice concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove broadcasting blackouts encouraged attendance. Juliane Kokott, an advocate-general of the court, pointed out that major leagues in France, Germany, Italy and Spain forgo a blackout. The rule’s defenders say that English football is different. In England on Saturday there will be six Premier League and 38 lower league games kicking off at 3pm. In Germany, six top-tier teams will play at 3.30pm and clash with no second-league matches, almost all of which take the 1.30pm slot. It is similar in France and Italy.
It is debatable how much the blackout rule helps smaller clubs, but it is certainly bad news for the Premier League. Broadcasting fees make up the lion’s share of Premier League clubs’ revenues, but the market is softening. A lack of competition between broadcasters in recent years has resulted in TV rights going cheaper. Fans eager to watch the return of Cristiano Ronaldo probably will not settle for a pint and a pasty at their local club instead. They are more likely to stay at home and find a dodgy stream to watch the game.