By Alex Bullamore and Dan Lambert
“Am I allowed to be annoyed with this?” is what Fulham captain Tim Ream tweeted when the news broke that Fulham’s last home game had been shifted to Monday 2nd May for the benefit of Sky Sports. Now you may find this bizarre that this QPR fansite is starting an article with a quote from the Fulham captain, but I think it highlights exactly the problem this article is going to investigate. Fulham at this point in time look set to win the Championship, but now instead of their fans having the opportunity to celebrate that on a Saturday when most people have planned to be in attendance, they’ll have to do it on a Monday night thanks to the intervention of Sky Sports.
So far this season QPR have had a massive fourteen 3pm Saturday kick offs rescheduled to be shown on the TV. It is worth noting that Barnsley (A) and Sheffield United (A) were two of these games were moved again one back to its original slot and one to another date again because of a COVID outbreak. Anyway, on the same day Fulham’s game was moved our last home fixture of the season was moved to the Friday night as you will all know. This got us thinking about the side effects of a fixture change, how are long traveling home supporters affected? How do away fans suffer? Will this affect our season ticket sales? With all this in mind ‘R’ Generation has spoken to both QPR and Sheffield United fans regarding the amount of fixture changes this season and the effects on the supporters.
The first thing to keep in mind here is the ongoing cost of living crisis, people have less money to go around and obviously this means that most people will reconsider some unnecessary expenses. Right at the forefront of this could be going to football matches, at the very least fans might reconsider how many long distance away fixtures they will go to. The whole away day experience is already an expensive one this is something that Clive Whittingham, who you’ll know as @LoftforWords on twitter, is quick to highlight. When we spoke to him, Clive channelled his inner Martin Lewis and explained that “it’s difficult to go away with QPR on the train now without dropping £150+ once you go beyond Reading/Luton/Bournemouth. Once you’re going somewhere like Newcastle/Sunderland/Boro it’s difficult to do the train for less that £80.” This is all before Sky get involved just a few weeks out and move the fixture to a Sunday at 12:30 or worse a Monday at 19:45.
But it is not just the ordinary fan who experiences trouble when fixtures a changed. Originally, we wanted to speak to local pubs that QPR fans use on matchday and hear about how fixture changes can affect them. Disappointingly we haven’t had a response from any of the pubs contacted, however we did speak with Dave Thomas the editor and publisher of A Kick Up The R’s (AKUTR’s) QPR’s last print fanzine. If you’ve ever walked down South Africa Road on matchday, then you would’ve been greeted by the sound of Dave selling the latest issue of AKUTR’s. Unfortunately, as Dave explains “this season especially, has been financially damaging” for the fanzine changing fixtures can have an adverse effect on the matchday takings. If a change is made away from the usual 3pm Saturday kick off Dave says that they can expect their takings to be “£500-£600 down from what we would expect on the original Saturday 3:00pm”.
Now I expect many of you readers will already know the struggles Dave goes through just to get the fanzine published. The pandemic obviously caused issues with previously sales only ever being made in person, the fanzine was consequently forced to go online when fans were not allowed in stadiums. Also, as Dave reminds us AKUTR’s “costs a lot of money to print and distribute”, and recently the price of the fanzine was forced to increase to £5 per issue. Despite the changes that have been made (an online and print subscription is available) the sales made on matchday are still hugely important to the survival of AKUTR’s. Dave mentioned to us that the money lost from a change in fixture “can be the difference between covering the costs and not covering the costs. We operate on very fine margins at the best of times, and it’s a headache and a worry every time a game is moved for television.”
As already mentioned, the game which spurred us to write this article is the final home game of the season against Sheffield United. We thought it would only be fair to speak with fans of the opposition and see how Sky’s tinkering has affected them throughout the season. Firstly, we spoke with Hal of the Sheff United Way podcast. Hal mentioned that this game was going to be a special one for him and his family as his 7-year-old nephew would be attending a Sheffield United game for the first time. His nephew is a Blades fan who lives close to the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, and this game was earmarked as a game he could go to. Now you can probably guess where this is going but Hal’s nephew will no longer be attending this game because of the shift to the Friday night. Hal also mentioned that he had to decline work when the game was originally on the Saturday, work which he won’t get back now the fixture is moved. We also spoke with @TravelingBlade who admitted that he would no longer be able to go to the match with the change happening at such short notice.
So, what solutions present themselves to avoid these increased prices? Well for me straight away there needs to be something in the next television deal stopping whoever hold the broadcast rights from rescheduling in such cavalier fashion. This is something that Clive tends to agree with “the next deal should come with specific conditions, and if Sky won’t cede to them then they’re not the only show in town and we’re just as important to them as to us”. Here Clive is referring to the emergence of several streaming services. Amazon Prime already hold the rights to a number of different sporting events, with some Premier League fixtures already secured. When these games have been on I’ve found that there is very few complaints regarding the broadcast, fans are growing more and more frustrated with how biased the Sky Premier League coverage is becoming with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville basically acting as fans rather than impartial pundits. Discovery+ is a streaming service Clive suggests people should keep an eye on, as they have just added Eurosport to their package and it has now been agreed to merge BT Sport with Eurosport.
So, as you can see the old ways of watching football are slowly going away, even clubs now have the ability to stream their games to fans around the world. This is a route that could be explored more for League One and Two, as they are constantly neglected by Sky Sports. Regardless any new deal should contain limitations which the potential broadcaster can’t go around or bend. Clive refers to the rights deal for UEFA competitions here, “They (UEFA) set the dates, the kick off times, the sponsorships, they sell all the commercials, all the money goes to them, they make the decisions. BT can’t tell them they’d actually like to move Man City’s Champions League game to a different day or time.”
Now there are significant differences between the Championship and the Champions League (understatement of the year over here), with the Champions League being a midweek competition there isn’t much room for changes. Also, if a broadcaster doesn’t want to comply with UEFA then there will be another just waiting to snap up the rights. Despite what we’ve said about the potential for Sky losing the rights there isn’t any suggestion at this point in time that the EFL might look elsewhere, so naturally the EFL is in a weaker position and will have to cede some things to Sky. Despite this there needs to be some parameters to stop Sky.
On what exactly these restrictions should be Dave and Clive come to similar conclusions, they agree that there needs to be a deadline which any broadcaster needs to be held to. Clive takes the much more hard-line option and suggests that there should be a 12 week deadline for changes to fixtures, Dave goes with the much more realistic five week option. But still these are the realistic solutions that need to be examined more by the EFL, they should be standing firm over these matters. Other suggestions from Clive include a more even split to games so that the top of the table aren’t exclusively on TV, a restriction on moving long distance games so that for example we don’t end up with Bournemouth Vs Middlesbrough kicking off at lunchtime and not having fixtures that finish after the last train home.
We were also interested to find out what the guys thought about removing the 3pm blackout as a solution, the blackout is where in the UK no 3pm Saturday games can be shown on live TV. With the rise of illegal streams this seems like an archaic practise which has lost it’s purpose of trying to get people into grounds. Many of us that actually attend fixtures will suggest that removing the blackout won’t have an effect on our attendance, this is something that Dave Thomas echoes. But Clive is quick to point out Sky’s greed and that in reality Sky probably wouldn’t take away the late and early kick offs because they have access to the 3pm Saturday slot. Clive goes on to say “my reluctance on the 3pm blackout thing comes from when I was a kid living up north. If I couldn’t get to QPR I’d go to either Grimsby or Scunny, and based on the amount of shirts you saw and the number of lads from my school who went along, if Liverpool or Man United had been on the TV at the same time as those games were being played it would have shaved significant numbers off the gates.” That is spot on from Clive the smaller clubs would suffer with the removal of the blackout, never the big clubs. The same big clubs, who let’s say could invent a whole new league that protects their interests but significantly damages domestic leagues across Europe, only for them to return without punishment once they’ve realised how much everyone despises the idea.
So where do we go from here? At the time of writing QPR are yet to reveal prices for next year’s season tickets and with the general bad mood around the constant changes in fixture, it would not be surprising to see a drop in sales. The only way positive change actually happens is if at the top the EFL decide to get stronger when negotiating with Sky Sports, restrictions and limitations similar to what has been suggested in this article need to be imposed to protect the fans. If Sky don’t want to play ball, then there are other options now, this has been further highlighted by Sky Sports losing the rights to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales internationals. But for now, we won’t be holding our breath.