Rick Parry, the current EFL chairman, declared last week that he wouldn’t “necessarily rule out” an end to the 3pm blackout rule when the next round of broadcasting rights is auctioned. The rights, which run from 2024 and are due to be renegotiated in 18 months’ time, were once again centre-stage last month when domestic viewers were unable to watch Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘homecoming’ to the Premier League with Manchester United due to the game being played at 3pm on a Saturday. Parry’s comments have caused a stir across English football, and particularly in the lower leagues.

Aside from Montenegro, the United Kingdom is the only country to implement Article 3 of the UEFA Regulations Governing the Implementation of Article 48 of the UEFA Statutes, which enables each Member Association to decide whether the broadcasting of football is prohibited within its territory for a two and half hour period on a Saturday or Sunday.

The rule was first introduced in the UK in 1960 after Bob Lord, the former Burnley Chairman, successively lobbied fellow Football League chairmen. Intended to protect both the participation in grassroots football and the level of matchday attendances across the Football League and in non-league, the rule has been in force ever since, bar a temporary suspension during the recent pandemic.  

The EU Advocate General in 2011 declared, following a review of the evidence, that the ability to broadcast all games throughout Europe did not affect the attendances at matches. Eleven Sports breached the rule in September 2018 by broadcasting Barcelona’s game against Athletic Bilbao in the UK within the blackout period. Eleven Sports then retreated from officially challenging the ruling. Gambling platforms have also breached the ruling since. With the growth of OTT platforms, like Eleven Sports or club-owned platforms, it seems that a legal challenge to the rule will inevitably arise.

Can the rule survive in the era of piracy? Viewers outside of the UK are not subject to the same restrictions. This has helped enable numerous illegal streams to be accessed from within the UK. Clearly this devalues the broadcasting rights which in turn reduces the amounts distributed to clubs.

Is the importance of participating at grassroots level and maintaining levels of attendances across the football pyramid too important? Dave Boddy, the Coventry City Chief Executive, informed me that the 3pm blackout rule is sacrosanct for the benefit of the entire football ecosystem, and other methods need to be thought of to counter the levels of piracy. This sentiment is echoed by a number of stakeholders in the Football League who note that the origins of Article 48 were to protect the game as a whole.

On the other hand, others such as the Canadian Peterborough United co-owner, Stewart Thompson, ‘believe the dissolution of Article 48 is a benefit to grassroots football’, as once clubs are able to own their own and control broadcasting platform, this will enable supporters to interact better with one another digitally and ensure local people have better access to their club. Thompson, who is able to watch the Peterborough games at 3pm in Canada, questions the fairness of a local fan being prohibited to watch the game if they are unable to attend for any reason. By charging the same amount for streaming as attendance, this may help to prevent a dent to lower league clubs’ revenues (who on average receive a third of their income from match-day revenues) and may also cater to a multi-generational fanbase.

Will the forces of the inevitable decline of linear tv and the subsequent rise of OTT platforms, combined with greater expectations of fans to be able to access their content from a variety of sources, exert too much pressure on the sacred 3pm blackout rule?