Going to the pub, Sunday roasts, and drinking tea are just some of Britain’s traditions. Perhaps the most important one though is going to the football on a Saturday at 3 pm.
The 3 pm time is so ingrained into the public, that even non-fans tend to know what time the football kicks off on a Saturday. Even though these days, barely four games in the Primer League will kick off at this time.
The reason behind the 3 pm kick-off is all to do with the Factory Act. Introduced in 1850, the law aimed to improve worker’s rights. It could have never been known how it would shape the future of society. Not only would it turn football into a significant sport, but it would also dictate the time it was played.
The Factory Act passed a law that stopped companies from keeping employees any later than 2 pm on a Saturday, allowing workers more recreational time. However, many Churches were concerned workers would turn to drink and spend their newfound freedom at the pub. Alternatively, churches called for workers to find another way to spend their time and encouraged them to set up football clubs. This is ironic considering how drinking is such a huge part of football.
Playing at 3 pm was considered a suitable time to give workers the chance to leave and make their way to the game. As there were few means of transport back then, most people opted to support the team that was within walking distance. As there was little else to do on a Saturday afternoon, a good portion of the local communities would be in attendance too.
As football gained popularity and the professional leagues were created, 3 pm remained a staple time for a Saturday. Not only did it suit workers but it meant that it just caught the remaining daylight hours during the winter months.
While weekday fixtures were not unusual, evening kickoffs were off limits due to the lack of light. All that changed in the 1950s with the introduction of floodlights. Swindon led the way, with Arsenal not far behind. Arsenal had initially installed lighting back in the 1930s however the Football League sanctioned them and could only be used during friendlies.
Changes to kickoff times became apparent from the 1960s onwards. Football was becoming profitable, and more matches were being televised. Not everyone was pleased, Burnley’s chairman Bob Lord aired concerns that attendances would drop if Saturday matches were shown on TV, and this, in turn, would affect the club’s finances.
Following Lord’s concerns and successfully convincing other clubs that it would be detrimental, the FA introduced the ‘blackout rule’, stipulating that any match in the professional leagues that kicked off at 3 pm on a Saturday was not allowed to be aired. The blackout time frame officially spans from 2.45 pm to 5.15 pm, intending to protect the integrity of the match. Making sure that the game is exclusive only to those in attendance. As a side note, the UK is one of the only countries to have this ruling in place.
The blackout rule remained in effect until the 2020/21 season. Due to Covid and the absence of fans from stadiums, the ruling was dropped for the season. For the first time in over 40 years, games could now be broadcast live at 3 pm on a Saturday. TV companies were quick to snap up the more desirable games. Leaving other clubs to broadcast their games, at a cost, through their channels.
The traditional 3 pm kick-off seems to be ever-elusive in the Premier League. Both Europa and the Champions League games take place mid-week and this tends to cause a knock-on effect. Europa Cup games taking place on a Thursday usually push clubs that play that evening, to a Sunday.
Even competition games have seen changes to their traditions. Until 2010, the Champions League final was always held on a Wednesday evening to coincide with it being a midweek competition. Since then, the final takes place on a Saturday. Largely down to popularity growth around the world, with it being the most-watched sporting competition. TV companies want to cash in, and broadcasting on a Saturday gains the most viewers.
In recent years the last day of the season has tended to take place on a Sunday to get around the blackout laws. If shown on a Saturday, it’s usually played at an earlier time. This gives TV companies first picks on which games to air.
It appears that every year, we see a change to scheduled times. Recently, Amazon Prime has started to show games, choosing an 8.15 pm time slot for some teams. There has been a backlash to this. Later games make it harder for fans to travel home, especially with a young family, work to be up for, or both. This becomes troublesome, with 3 pm being ideal as it gives plenty of time on either side of the match, for travel and pre/post-match drinks.
It is easy to assume the majority of countries have a Saturday 3 pm kick-off time but not so. The UK’s football is steeped in history, and many other countries have their version of this.
In Italy, a Sunday afternoon is the day of choice, typically a day for family and getting together in which football has become a part. Typically an ever-increasing amount of games are now played on a Saturday. Normally they would have Christmas off, but games are now being scheduled during that period too.
Spain meanwhile plays many of its games in the evening, with the temperature cooler. Starting later also suits their culture, which is also the same for many South American countries.
Kick-off times will likely be ever-changing, especially with broadcasting rights. The sport is now a behemoth, and many European leagues are gaining popularity all over the world. The clamber to show games to increasing markets, especially in Asia, will influence game times.
On the flip side, many lower leagues still have the traditional kick-off times. This will likely remain and stand as a throwback to how it all began.
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