When Project Restart was authorised, the ‘festival of football’ began. The Premier League carnival negotiated with its broadcasters and the government to deliver a six-week mega-event.
Every team travelled the country and performed their specialised acts. Aston Villa pulled off an unlikely relegation escape, Leicester City fell off their Champions League tightrope, Manchester United and Chelsea restored their Champions League status, and Liverpool made history. For the most part, it was a success.
Every game was televised. The government temporarily rescinded the 3pm blackout. Fans, for the first time, could watch every game legally: some even for free on the BBC. It was a utopian outcome, a path to a much brighter future.
The festival closed and our attention hurriedly turned to UEFA’s competitions. There was little time to think about what Project Restart’s legacy would entail. The basic assumption was the league and its partners would abide by the same spirit.
Instead, the league and its broadcasters caused civil unrest amongst the fans by televising 220 matches out of a possible 360. More than 40% of fixtures would be locked away, only to be found on a dodgy looking illegal streaming website.
The Athletic explained the fight between fans and the league in detail. An official at one Premier League club supported the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) #LetUSWatch campaign. “How have we not sorted this out before?” he questioned. “What kind of way is this to treat our most loyal fans? It’s embarrassing for the industry and it’s taken normal people to put us right.”
The immediate battle ended with the fans coming out on top. The Premier League collapsed to the pressure. Every fixture will now be shown in September – even one game on the BBC. Regardless, there is still little knowledge for what the broadcasting picture will look like once 1st October hits.
Socially distanced crowds are planned for the start of next month. FSA chairman Malcolm Clarke pointed to this in his reaction to the league’s decision. “We’re pleased the Premier League has listened,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction but this policy must be extended through the season while games are being played in front of severely restricted crowds.”
Reduced crowds beyond the planning phase are in doubt by, no surprise, the rising Covid-19 cases in the UK. The ban on gatherings of more than six people in a house, pub, park or restaurant was re-imposed on last Monday. Further regional restriction has turned the picture bleak. Consequently, the government’s review into its stadia re-opening policy for next month is ongoing. Football, much like other industries, is in limbo.
With these factors at the full front of the news, the Premier League has a problem which hangs over it like a bristling cloud ready to burst. Broadcasting reform should be thought about more than ever before. This means streaming.
According to The Athletic, the ‘Pandora’s box’ conversation has picked up interest, though it is unknown how much the league has explored since their ‘Premflix’ announcement in February.
An in-house streaming service is what modern-day sports broadcasting is heading towards. The NBA, MLB, NFL, Formula 1, WWE and even the EFL have their own streaming providers. The EFL, for all their shortcomings, painlessly transformed their iFollow platform – which was meant for overseas supporters – for the market in England. Season-ticket holders can stream every home game and each away-midweek fixture. The base price for a streaming match ticket costs £10. The policy is ‘temporary’ but the action was swift and effective.
Queens Park Rangers are one example for taking advantage of the situation. They have supplied its season-ticket supporters with a balloting system. They can opt-in or opt-out for each home match. Assuming they choose to opt-in and are chosen, they can attend the match inside their bubble. If they opt-in and are not chosen, or opt-out, they are refunded for the game and are free to watch the game via the streaming provider.
However, iFollow has not been totally perfect. It has caused problems in the past with some fans’ streams being plagued with technical issues during the restart. It will need to be improved further as it is a solution to unpredictable fan attendance. It is a foundation for the EFL to build onto. Its importance to club income will be paramount to their survival.
Where the EFL decided to turn themselves to the streaming market, the Premier League had little reason to rush into it. The traditional TV right deals guaranteed consistent income and the league held the negotiating ability to push further.
Pre-coronavirus, the Premier League signed a six-year £2 billion TV agreement with Swedish broadcasting giant Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT) beginning in 2022. The rights will allow NENT to show the division in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
In just a few months, the world completely changed. The pandemic’s length and its long-term cost are unstable. Countries are battling between saving their economy and halting a second wave.
At face value, the need for a Premier League Over The Top (OTT) streaming service, or ‘Premflix’, is a clear option to explore. Fans unable to attend matches need to be considered, regardless of when reduced capacities are introduced.
Where some fans will be queuing to get their first taste of being back at a football stadium in six months, others do not have the economical ability to follow suit. Some may not even attend due to health and safety precautions. We are living through a pandemic after all.
To deprive supporters of their fandom is unfair and unwarranted. The FSA recognises this, and it is expected they will apply further pressure so fans outside the ‘big six’ are not left behind. Because they are the ones who will be.
Newcastle, Burnley and West Brom do not have the same domestic or global appeal as Manchester City, Manchester United or Liverpool. That is understandable and is in line with where the sport is at.
However, it was unacceptable that not a single Burnley or Newcastle United league match was not chosen for the September television line-up before the Premier League U-turned. On the other hand, every fixture with a big six team was; except one, which was Tottenham vs Newcastle coincidentally. Their fans were locked out by no fault of their own.
A dilemma the Premier League faces is if they don’t broadcast every match while the pandemic dominates our lives, including for when reduced capacities are introduced, fans will be flocking to illegal streaming websites. The Premier League launched a Boot Out Piracy campaign in Malaysia last week to halt the inevitable migration. The FSA immediately labelled it as ‘irony overload’ on Twitter. Though streaming may not solve this issue entirely as it is vulnerable to piracy.
Regardless, creating an OTT service should give the league greater flexibility to show more games when needed to, rather than being tied into a contractual knot with traditional broadcasters. One theory, reported by The Athletic, for their hesitancy was down to damaging their relationship with their partners, especially Sky. It is no surprise considering the broadcaster supplied the Premier League with the materials to build its luxurious kingdom.
The next domestic TV talks will be complicated. Sky’s, BT’s and Amazon’s contract will expire in 2022 and it is almost certain COVID-19 will affect the negotiating process. The value may rise as more games than ever before will be available to purchase. Or the value will fall because the product is not the same without fans and the country will be in its worst recession in 300 years. The future is completely unpredictable.
Simultaneously, the Premier League could use the streaming threat to their benefit. ‘Premflix’ was due to be trialled in 2022 even without a pandemic. They can suggest they are willing to move on and are no longer reliant on traditional broadcasting. This subtle threat may allow them to tie-down favourable terms and settle for guaranteed income, albeit with potential rebates.
‘Premflix’s’ inception may not even end the Premier League’s association with traditional broadcasters and Amazon. The division could choose to use an NBA League Pass-style streaming service. The NBA works with broadcasters, such as ESPN, TNT and ABC, to deliver the sport from their platform.
Assuming the league drove down this route, a Premier League enthusiast could cancel their subscriptions with Sky, BT and Amazon and watch the coverage via ‘Premflix’. It is cheaper for the consumer and they would have access to every game. To watch all televised fixtures, right now it costs an estimated £900-per-year. Presuming the league provides a similar price package to the NBA League Pass, a season’s price on OTT is projected at £250.
A more generic sports fan, in contrast, could keep their subscription with Sky and watch it through their channels. They might want to keep hold of the other sports content Sky has to offer. The Premier League would maintain their beneficial relationships with the likes of Sky while also establishing their own media platform they can harness and grow.
This idea does not mean the league should create an all-out football parade where every game is on at a different time. It would be boring and excessive. Even the biggest Premier League fan would be drowned in unnecessary content. The 3pm blackouts and TV timeslots should still apply. This will also protect any perceived danger to Match of the Day.
What it would allow is the safeguarding of fans during the pandemic by taking control of their own content. They will set the tone directly to the supporters, though this may result in more ultra-Premier League advocacy. The league, with the help of their broadcasters, has a habit of whitewashing history. The new Premier League Hall of Fame is one example. It seemingly disrespects the players and managers who did not have the luxury to be a part of the 1992 revolution.
Streaming is also an untapped marketing goldmine. Diamondiferous fervour would be released to markets where the Premier League have had a stake but have not yet consolidated.
The league proudly stated they had broadcasted to 188 out of a possible 193 countries recognised by the United Nations last year. In 2013, the Times reported the Premier League had broadcasted to 643 million homes and a possible 4.7 billion people. These extraordinary figures were dismissed by Forbes magazine in 2017. They believed an average of 12 million people watched every live game.
The context to these figures is difficult to pin down, as author John Nicolson explains in Can we have our football back?. Supposedly 4.7 billion different people watched the Premier League every week, this would be 60% of the global population. It is unfeasible to believe this is true. Jamie Carragher celebrated Sky accumulating 3.9 million views for Liverpool vs Manchester United in January. That is not even 6% of the UK population. Also, you must consider a view counts as watching the fixture for 3-minutes. Nonetheless, assuming 12 million different people watched every televised match, that works out to be around 0.02% of the world population. There is plenty of space to exploit the domestic and global markets further.
Crucially, a streaming service could create an even greater market in China. The Premier League cancelled its £564 million TV contract with digital broadcaster PPTV. Reasons behind the decision vary from PPTV incapable of paying for it to the UK-China tensions over-spilling into the broadcasting arena. The Premier League quickly signed a fresh one-year replacement deal with Chinese broadcaster Tencent. The rumoured $10m deal will allow free-to-air showings of every Premier League game this season.
While the Tencent deal is a great decline in broadcasting revenue, the free-to-air service should provide a platform for Premier League growth. China, led by president Xi Jinping, are also building a football nation, as explained part one and two of the Chinese football series. Creating a greater football hysteria through the Premier League would act in the interests of the Chinese government.
Though the Premier League will need to be wary of human right criticism if they were to develop a friendlier relationship. Treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is, to many, genocide. Getting too close to the Chinese market will bring damaging criticism.
Of course, greater globalisation could create unintentional consequences. Global fans want to see the big six perform. They are the attraction. The current international TV deals have already created disparity with the bigger teams taking a larger chunk of the pie. An OTT service could cause greater inequality in profit-sharing. With competitive distinction increasing by the year, it would be devastating in the long-term.
It is why the Premier League faces an uneasy dilemma. For so long a noticeable gap has separated the large minority and small majority in the division. Streaming provides a solution to the fan attendance enigma and ensuring teams outside the big six can provide for their supporters if they are not chosen for TV. However, they risk being the outsiders to extreme globalisation. There is little to wonder why they want to keep the conversation on pause.