Before big-bucks TV broadcasters had their way, English football games were played almost exclusively at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. But when Sky Sports and other TV channels began to realise the appetite for watching live games from the comfort of an armchair, they started offering mega-money to the Premier League in a bid to show more matches – hence the birth of Sunday, Monday, Friday, etc. kick offs.
Then a change came along that would completely alter how football was broadcast in England: it was decreed that a ‘blackout’ would be introduced that would stop 3pm kick-offs being shown on UK TV.
Why Is There a 3pm Blackout?
Since the 1960s, no British broadcaster has been allowed to show top-flight games at 3pm on a Saturday. The rule applies to the Premier League, Championship, League One and League Two as well. But, why? Well, we have one man to thank: former Burnley FC chairman, Bob Lord. He argued that showing 3pm games on television would ultimately impact upon attendances at matches – thus, gate receipts would be impacted (costing the clubs money) and so too would the atmosphere within the stadium.
Many of Lord’s fellow chairmen and women agreed, so they approached the Football Association with the idea of a TV blackout. Remember, this was in the days before clubs were paid big money by broadcasters as part of media rights deals – the bulk of a football club’s revenue in those times came from fans buying tickets. Lord was something of a renegade who once banned Match of the Day cameras from Burnley’s Turf Moor home for five years – so opposed was he to football being televised.
Somewhat surprisingly, many at the Football League agreed, and so the TV blackout was introduced on Saturdays between the hours of 14:45 and 17:15 – no game can be broadcast in this window, with the exception of the FA Cup final (which has been shunted from 3pm to 5pm, by and large).
The blackout covers all levels of the professional game (BT Sport have broadcast occasional 3pm kick-offs from the National League), and includes games from overseas as well. Quite simply, you will never see a game of professional football broadcast in football between those hours. This isn’t just a voluntary blackout; it’s now enshrined in law as UEFA’s Article 48.
When King Charles was coronated in May 2023, however, Sky Sports threw convention to the wind and showed Manchester City vs Leeds United – the first time the blackout had been contravened in the best part of six decades.
Which Countries Have a 3pm Blackout?
You don’t need to be a math genius to count up the number of countries that abide by a 3pm Saturday blackout. England, Scotland and, curiously, Montenegro are the only three nations that have voluntarily signed up to UEFA’s Article 48, which is not a law or edict but merely a piece of guidance.
That hopefully helps to explain why, if you’re overseas on holiday or a business trip, you can watch the Saturday 3pm kick offs on international soil. Although many leagues in Europe don’t have a set 3pm kick off time, games in La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 often cross over the 14:45-17:15 threshold – they simply decided to opt out of Article 48 altogether.
Will the 3pm Blackout Be Scrapped?
This won’t come as a huge surprise, but many football fans that pay significant amounts of money each month in subscriptions to sports channels want the 3pm blackout scrapped. At the time of writing, the Premier League has resisted the urge to lift the prohibition, with EPL chief, Richard Masters, suggesting that the blackout is here to stay. He states,
We’ve been proponents of Article 48 for the entire Premier League, and I don’t see that changing in the near term.
But, are they missing a trick? With monster companies like Amazon and Apple queuing up for a larger slice of the Premier League TV rights, how many more millions would be made if the traditional Saturday afternoon kick-offs were included in the rights packages?
There could, however, be some consolatory news for armchair football fans ahead. According to some reports, the Football League are planning to scrap the blackout in the Championship, League One and League Two – meaning that broadcast partners would have the opportunity to show games between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday afternoon. The reason? They believe that the TV rights would be worth a lot more without the blackout included, with the likes of Sky Sports expected to almost double the value of their deal with the EFL if 3pm Saturday games are allowed to be broadcast.
The EFL’s current TV deal ends at the denouement of the 2023/24 season, at which point the highest bidder is likely to walk away with the largest slice of the action. It’s not impossible that every game from every club in the EFL could be live streaming, allowing fans to buy a ‘season ticket’ to watch from home rather than having to hope that one of the TV channels will show their team’s games.
That could be the future of watching non-Premier League football in the UK – it would almost certainly bring about an end to the 3pm blackout. Would the EPL then be forced to follow suit?