Opened Saturday window offers 'flexibility' for FTA Premier League games
Oliver Dowden, the UK government’s culture secretary, has said there are “productive discussions” with English soccer’s Premier League about an element of domestic live free-to-air coverage if, as hoped, the season can resume next month.
The government is seeking wider access to matches given that fans will not be able to attend in person given health and safety concerns amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
However, it is thought that any free-to-air live games would be ones scheduled in the traditional blackout window of 2.45pm to 5.15pm on Saturdays so as not to infringe on the existing lucrative rights deals with pay-television operators Sky and BT Sport.
The Premier League and second-tier EFL Championship have been suspended since mid-March, but, with the health situation improving and clubs resuming training in small groups, there are hopes that the 2019-20 season can be restarted, behind closed doors, in mid-June.
In recent days, coronavirus tests have been conducted on 748 players and staff from across the Premier League clubs, with only six positives.
The Saturday afternoon TV blackout has been lifted for the remainder of the season given the exceptional circumstances, and Dowden believes that provides some “flexibility.”
Speaking at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, he said: “I think that creates an opportunity for us to be able to get some sport, some Premier League free to air. Those discussions are ongoing. I am having productive discussions - a couple of weeks ago and now the latest ones with Premier League, the EFL and the FA (Football Association).
“I hope we can sort this out and also hope we can get more money going into the sport of football. I think we can find ourselves in a win-win situation.”
There have not been live top-flight games on free-to-air TV in the UK since the Premier League was launched in 1992 although the BBC, the UK’s public-service broadcaster, offers highlights via the long-running Match of the Day programme.
Premier League clubs resumed non-contact training on Tuesday and other restrictions are expected to be lifted over the coming weeks.
Dowden said: “'I hope, subject to the sign-off by Public Health England and others, we will then later this week, very shortly, get the guidance about how we can have training in a contact environment. This is for elite sports so that they can start to build up.
“The final stage would then be the guidelines as to whether they can resume behind closed doors. In doing that we have been guided by the health advice, and I can update you again today for the fourth time there were meetings between elite sports and Public Health England to find out how we can do it safely. If we can do it safely, I'd like us to be able to get it up and running towards mid-June if that's possible.”
The Premier League is eager to complete the season in large part to avoid having to repay £762 million ($932 million) to domestic and international broadcasters, and compensation is expected to amount to between £300 million and £350 million even if the 92 games are played.
Rebates would be due because of changes around scheduling and conditions (games would take place on different days and at different times to originally planned, and behind closed doors instead of with full crowds in attendance).
With sensitive negotiations ongoing with players and managers over the health protocols for matches, the Premier League is thought to be looking at resuming on 12 or 19 June.
The 20 clubs will be eager to finish the season by or shortly after 16 July having learned that broadcasters will be due an extra £36 million in rebates for every week the 2019-20 season extends beyond that date, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
It is reported that some clubs are concerned that large repayments could force them to make severe cost cuts and redundancies.
The league’s domestic and international broadcast deals for the 2019 to 2022 cycle are worth around £9.2 billion, and full details of the rebate model will be presented to the clubs at conference calls next Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Premier League will have taken encouragement from the return of the German Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga, without serious hitches, behind closed doors last weekend.
Boosted by this, the DFL, the German football league, yesterday announced the schedule for the top two divisions for the remainder of the season, which is expected to conclude on the weekend of 27 and 28 June.