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Minal Modha | Would the removal of the 3pm blackout rule really stop sports piracy in the UK?

Minal Modha, consumer research lead at Ampere Analysis, breaks down the data behind the argument to lift the UK's ban on Saturday afternoon broadcasts of live soccer.

25 April 2023 Minal Modha

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The UK’s 3pm blackout rule was back in the limelight after the English Football League (EFL), which oversees the second, third and fourth tiers of English soccer, said in October that it would consider lifting the ban for the next rights cycle.

The admission came as the organising body looks to cater for changing viewing habits and unlock potential new revenue streams in what has been a challenging UK market for the past five years, with Ampere’s data showing that growth in rights spend has slowed to just 14 per cent during that period.

The Premier League, on the other hand, has reiterated its commitment to the blackout rule for its next rights cycle, with chief executive Richard Masters confirming the top flight won’t be removing it any time soon.

The EFL has since named incumbent Sky Sports as the preferred bidder for its next domestic rights contract from 2024 onwards, opting against a reported offer from streaming service DAZN that could have seen an end to the blackout rule. Still, the sales process reignited the debate as to whether the UK’s current broadcast regulations around live soccer remain fit for purpose. 

But what exactly is the blackout rule? Article 48 under Uefa statutes allows member nations to choose a two-and-a-half hour time period during the weekend when no soccer matches are televised live. Currently, Scotland, England and Montenegro are the only three members who adhere to what is now known as ‘the 3pm blackout rule’. This effectively means no live matches are televised between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday.

Originally, this rule was brought in during the 1960s to protect live attendances as television became more accessible. However, the viewing landscape now is highly globalised and with easy access to pirate sites, streams and devices which enable fans to illegitimately access 3pm matches from feeds abroad, it begs the question: should the rule be scrapped?

In my research for this column, I found quotes from lower-league clubs both for and against the rule. Those in favour tended to have grounds close to bigger Premier League clubs and were able to attract a live audience from fans of those top-flight sides. They worried those supporters would disappear if their Premier League team’s match were suddenly made available during that timeslot.

There was some data suggesting that live broadcasts do have an impact on attendances. For the 2018/19 season, the EFL made ‘non-live’ midweek Championship matches available via the red button on Sky Sports and League One and League Two matches available via its own iFollow over-the-top (OTT) platform. Research conducted by The Times showed that this contributed to an 8.8 per cent decline in attendances for the first three midweek rounds. While this does not provide concrete answers, it does show the need for more in-depth research to determine if there is a correlation between live broadcasts and attendances.

On the other hand, there are some Championship and lower-league clubs who argue that viewing patterns have changed and that soccer needs to move with the times, or risk losing both audiences and revenues to new technology. And by this they mean piracy.

In order to delve into the impact of piracy, I think it’s important to dig into engagement with the Premier League as, arguably, the world’s best domestic league. Within Ampere’s Consumer survey, we ask online fans of leagues across selected markets how much of the competition they watch. In the UK, nearly two in five fans claim to watch all of the coverage of the Premier League.

While most of this may be legitimate viewing, one in ten do not have access to a premium channel or subscription video on demand (SVOD) platform which shows Premier League content, and 75 per cent use a pirate site or device to watch live sport illegitimately. This suggests that at least some of them will be pirating games that are on during the blackout window, with streaming sites their platform of choice.

If we delve further, we can see these fans over-index for being 18 to 34. There is a danger that if young audiences get used to simply accessing premium content for free and illegally, converting them to paying customers in the future will be challenging.

And it’s not just domestic leagues which the blackout rule is affecting. During my time at Eleven Sports, I was surprised to discover that the rule doesn’t just apply to English soccer, but that we were not allowed to show the start of El Clasico at 5pm and could only start showing the match at 5.15pm. This meant that for 15 minutes, there was no legitimate way to access the match live in the UK, which would naturally push people towards pirating the content.

Once they’ve found illegal streams they are happy with, why should they come back to a paid-for service? If the argument to keep the rule is to protect attendances, I’m not convinced the governing bodies need to worry too much about UK-based LaLiga or Serie A fans not turning up to a live game because their matches are shown on TV during this time.

A counter argument is that the removal of the blackout window would not necessarily add to piracy rates, but simply see the current rates continue. At the moment, the vast majority of those accessing illegitimate sources to watch live sport are not relying wholly on piracy, but are already paying customers of at least one service.

Ampere has found that the main reason for pirating live sport content in the UK is an overall perception that sport is too expensive, with 42 per cent of those who pirate citing this reason. Therefore, if another broadcaster is given rights during the blackout window, there is no guarantee that fans will be willing to pay for the coverage.

This highlights a feature of the UK rights market I discussed in my column on the impact of the cost of living crisis on sport, namely that if you are a Premier League fan in the UK and want access to all the games which are broadcast, you would have to spend UK£80 per month as a Sky customer for access to the three services which carry the games exclusively – Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime Video. With that in mind, it’s no great surprise that fans are already struggling to pay to access all of the games selected for broadcast.

The blackout rule is something most UK-based fans have grown up with and simply accepted. But the viewing landscape has shifted immensely from when it was first introduced, so there needs to be a serious assessment of whether its application still results in higher attendances for lower-league clubs. If it truly does, then by all means let’s keep it and get fully behind it to ensure that clubs further down the pyramid are able to maximise their gate revenues.

However, even if this is the conclusion, adaptations should be made – continue the blackout for domestic leagues, maybe, but lift the ones for international leagues, which are likely to have limited impact on matchday attendance and are instead simply driving up piracy.

But if a review finds that it does not have a material impact on attendances, then perhaps it’s time to remove the rule altogether and let UK fans access as much live content as international fans do, while also trying to combat a piracy issue still pulling significant sums of money out of the game.

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