Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Ronaldo is back and so is the blackout debate

“Friday night and the gates are low…” sang Birkenhead’s pre-eminent post-punk-indie band, Half Man Half Biscuit.

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo has been added to the player mural artwork on the outside of Old Trafford stadium
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo has been added to the player mural artwork on the outside of Old Trafford stadium

Attendances often were a bit on the shy side at Prenton Park, where Tranmere Rovers live in the shadow of Merseyside’s giants, Everton and Liverpool. Which is why, for much of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the club staged their home games on Friday night instead of the traditional Saturday 3pm kick-off time.

The idea behind the move was to encourage Wirral-based fans of Everton and Liverpool to come through the turnstiles of their local side the evening before heading across – or under – the Mersey to watch the big guns in action on Saturday afternoon.

It was the case then, and remains so now, that the smaller clubs had to battle for every penny and every supporter when pitted against the behemoths of English football.

The theme was back on the agenda this week when it dawned on many that Cristiano Ronaldo’s eagerly awaited/tediously hyped return to Manchester United would not be shown live on television for the enjoyment of armchair viewers. Being a Saturday 3pm kick-off, the television blackout applies.

The blackout is one of former Burnley chairman Bob Lord’s finer legacies. In the 1960s, he argued that televised football would damage attendances, and lobbied his Football League colleagues to fight against the encroaching power of the platform.

It remains to this day, as an enforcement of Uefa Article 48, which allows associations to block “transmission of football” for any two-and-a-half hour weekend period. So, between 2:45pm to 5:15pm on Saturday in the UK, we have the blackout.

Yet as the pandemic hit, this rule was lifted when it became clear that football would have to be played behind closed doors. Every Premier League match was screened live on television, including those kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday.

Lower down the ladder, fans were able to watch their teams live at the same time on the EFL’s iFollow streaming service. Now that the blackout is back, there are those demanding it should be scrapped.

Former Crystal Palace chairman, Simon Jordan, speaking on Talksport this week, argued that fears Saturday afternoon attendances would be affected by televised games were misplaced, “because you can fill stadiums ten times over.”

That might be true for Manchester United and Liverpool, but it categorically does not apply to every club outside of the Premier League whose attendance could well be adversely affected.

There are interesting arguments for and against the blackout. The lower down the league ladder you go, the more difficult it could become for clubs to survive if the blackout was lifted.

At non-league clubs, where there are a greater percentage of casual supporters who pay on the day than can be found in the Premier League, there are genuine concerns that Saturday 3pm televised Premier League football will keep those casual on-the-day spectators in the pub or elsewhere in front of a television screen.

Locally, there are many Wolves and Albion fans who enjoy taking in the odd match at Telford, Stourbridge, Darlaston, Hednesford and elsewhere when their team is away from home. Many non-league clubs rely on the larger Saturday afternoon attendances to make their money, be it through the turnstiles or behind the bars. Introduce televised Premier League football and that footfall may decrease.

In contrast, Leyton Orient chairman Nigel Travis believes the blackout is holding his own club back.

“Last year, fan behaviour changed and fans got used to being able to see every game,” Travis told the I newspaper. “Most of our fans don’t live close to Leyton. Last week, because it was an international break and there was no 3pm blackout, we showed the Orient vs Newport County game on our streaming services.

“The money we got from ticket sales – which is 5 per cent of the tickets you sold – we made 30 times that amount on streaming.”

Travis argues football needs to keep up with the changing digital world around it.

By that measurement, offering Saturday 3pm kick-offs to UK broadcasters such as Sky and BT, would certainly raise revenue through TV rights deals. But the only real beneficiaries will be the clubs already made rich by these rights, not those lower down the pyramid.

Any suggestion of a more equitable distribution of income from a change to the blackout regulations is pie in the sky.

Tradition is also at the heart of the debate. The mass exodus from homes, workplaces and pubs for Saturday 3pm kick-offs is reassuringly familiar. It has become a ritual that works for so many, particularly in the winter months. Break that and our football will lose a huge part of its identity.

Everyone will have their own opinion on whether the blackout should remain or not, and Ronaldo’s non-televised potential return to the pitch at Old Trafford has reignited the debate.

Oh, and by the way, the rise of Tranmere Rovers under manager Johnny King in the late 1980s and 90s eventually enticed enough people through the turnstiles at Prenton Park and the club switched back to 3pm Saturday afternoon kick-offs without fear of the pull of their more illustrious neighbours. Which meant, for Half Man Half Biscuit, no longer did the slip of a substitute ruin their entire weekend.

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