The Sweeper: Can Television Save Local Football?


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Here’s a curious proposal from one of England’s most thoughtful football writers: in order to increase ties to local clubs lost by national television broadcasts and migration patterns, Gabrielle Marcotti suggests that “if fandom is reached via television, then television should be fully embraced, albeit with some key safeguards, along the lines of what the NFL has done for years.”

What he means here is that Premier League clubs’ games should be shown only in their region and not nationally, as long as they are sold-out, a sensible enough provision to ensure games are seen by actual fans. As Marcotti explains,

“Scrap the notion of nationwide Premier League TV games, with the exception of one “game of the week” which would be on a terrestrial brodcaster and would be the league’s showpiece that week. Then, divide the country up into regions and show every Premier League game but on a regional basis as long as one of two conditions are met: either it’s an away game or it’s a home sellout.”

Marcotti accepts it’s a rough idea, but concludes by summing up the benefits:

Obviously it’s a radical re-think and requires a number of adjustments. You need to do a lot of fiddling for regions where there are many clubs (like London or Manchester). You need to spread the schedule out across the weekend which will, no doubt upset traditionalists (although, in fact, it’s already very spread out). But it would allow many who simply can’t go to games – whether because they are too young, too old or too poor – to follow their local club and develop (or rekindle) their passion for it. And, if done right, it would also boost attendances. By the way, technologically, it would be very easy to do: Sky boxes are already set based on postcodes, which is why if you move from Liverpool to London and take your receiver with you, you still get local Liverpool news.

This isn’t quite the NFL model, though. Yes, home teams have to sell-out their games 72 hours before a game or it will be blacked out on television within a 75 mile radius of the team’s home stadium. Meantime, when the local team’s game is airing, no other game can be shown on a local network station.

But there’s still a hell of a lot of nationally broadcast games, which is why the NFL’s television deal is even sweeter than the Premier League’s. A fan of an NFL team who does not live in that team’s local market can purchase NFL Sunday Ticket on satellite and watch all their team’s games that way. You don’t have to be local to watch every game your team plays, wherever they play. And through Sunday Ticket, you can watch pretty much every game every weekend.

Aside from the premium Sunday Ticket package, there’s an enormous amount of gridiron on American television broadcast nationally.  If your local team plays at say 3pm central time (in my case, the Chicago Bears), you can usually find two games on local network stations beforehand at noon, and then nationally broadcast games on both Sunday and Monday evenings. For the second half of the season, NFL Network (a dedicated station available on most cable or satellite packages for little extra charge) shows a live game on Thursday nights nationally as well.

The point of all this is to say that the NFL’s model isn’t exactly one of encouraging local fandom over following a team across the country. A Cowboys fan could watch every game Dallas plays even if he lives in Seattle by buying NFL Sunday Ticket or going to one of hundreds of bars that has it. He can also gorge on a dozen plus other games and entirely ignore the Seahawks if he chooses.

What the NFL’s model does do is encourage existing local fans of their team to go to games, or they will be blacked out in their locality on television. Essentially, though, this is presupposing a local fanbase for that NFL team, not encouraging one over national affiliations.  The NFL is obviously popular enough now that a team can move states and suddenly a sold-out stadium will appear in their new home. Part of this is precisely because of the amount of games shown nationally.

Marcotti’s model would surely result in a far less lucrative television deal for the Premier League. But I’m also not sure it would help local clubs outside the Premier League, as the regional behemoths like Liverpool would in this model have more of their games on television available to local fans.

The problem is that in most of the NFL, there is only one team per region. In England, ensuring every Manchester United game could be seen locally on television every week would surely only do more damage to other local clubs like Rochdale or Stockport County by increasing the availability of United games from the armchair, even if they were not shown at the same times as their games. It would actually encourage local armchair Premier League fandom, wouldn’t it?

The local television model works in the NFL with 32 teams spread across a geographic area so much larger than England, which is the size of Alabama and has over 90 professional clubs. Limiting broadcasts by locality and not damaging smaller teams is much harder to do in England.

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