English football on television

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English football on television has been broadcast since 1937, and since the establishment of the Premier League in 1992 it has become a very lucrative industry. As of the 2007-08 season, television rights for the 20-team Premier League are valued at close to £1bn each season. Based on July 2007 exchange rates, this is only marginally less than what American football's 32-team NFL receives from its TV contracts.


Early years[edit]

The BBC started its television service in 1936, although it was nearly a year before the very first televised match of football was screened – a specially-arranged friendly match between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves at Highbury on 16 September 1937.[1] This was followed by the first televised international match, between England and Scotland on 9 April 1938, and the first televised FA Cup final followed soon after, on 30 April the same year, between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End.[2]

In October 1946, the first live televised football match was broadcast by the BBC from Barnet's home ground Underhill. Twenty minutes of the game against Wealdstone were televised in the first half and thirty five minutes of the second half before it became too dark.

However, coverage of football television did not expand and for the next two decades the only matches screened were FA Cup finals and the odd England v. Scotland match. The first FA Cup tie other than the final to be shown was a fifth round match between Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers on 8 February 1947, but matches were sparing and only games in London could be broadcast, for technical reasons.[3]

The dawn of regular coverage[edit]

The advent of floodlighting led to the creation of the European Cup, designed as a midweek cup competition for the champions of European nations, in 1955. The newly formed British television station ITV saw televised football as an ideal way of gaining a share of the audience from their only rival broadcaster, the BBC. The BBC meanwhile, started showing brief highlights of matches (with a maximum of five minutes) on its Saturday-night Sports Special programme from 10 September 1955, until its cancellation in 1963. The first games featured were both from Division One - Luton Town v Newcastle United and Charlton Athletic v Everton, Kenneth Wolstenholme and Cliff Michelmore were the commentators.[4]

An early attempt at live league football was made in 1960-61, when ITV agreed a deal worth £150,000 with the Football League to screen 26 matches; the very first live league match was on Saturday 10 September 1960 between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers at Bloomfield Road. The match kicked off at 6:50 pm with live coverage starting at 7:30 under the title The Big Game. A major blow to the TV moguls was the absence of big box office draw Stanley Matthews through injury, and the game ended 1-0 to Bolton in front of a half-empty stadium.[5]

However ITV withdrew from the deal after first Arsenal and then Tottenham Hotspur refused them permission to shoot at their matches against Newcastle United and Aston Villa respectively, and the Football League demanded a dramatic increase in player appearance payments.[3] ITV showed the Nat King Cole Show instead, while both matches received highlights coverage from the BBC on Sports Special.

However ITV moved again into football, albeit tentatively, in 1962 when Anglia Television launched Match of the Week, which showed highlights of matches from around East Anglia. The first match shown was Ipswich Town's 3-2 defeat at the hands of Wolves at Portman Road on 22 September 1962.[6] Tyne Tees Television in the North East of England began broadcasting local matches soon after under the title Shoot. League football was soon to gain a nationwide audience once more. In 1964, the BBC introduced Match of the Day - originally shown on BBC2 and intended to train BBC cameramen for the forthcoming 1966 World Cup. The first match was Liverpool's 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Anfield on 22 August, and the estimated audience of 20,000 was considerably less than the number of paying customers at the ground. At the time BBC2 could only be received in the London area, although by the end of Match Of The Day's first season it could be sampled in the Midlands. The programme transferred to BBC1 in the wake of England's 1966 World Cup win and at last could be received by television viewers across the UK.

The World Cup[edit]

There was live coverage of World Cup football on UK screens in 1954 and 1958 - however only selected matches were available. In 1954, Kenneth Wolstenholme provided commentary on the few televised matches for BBC from Switzerland - including the quarter-final between Hungary and Brazil. A thunderstorm over the Alps cut off the picture and many irate viewers wrote in to complain that the BBC had pulled the plug.[7] The 1958 tournament in Sweden saw a greater range of matches thanks to the new Eurovision Network; the BBC and ITV both screened matches, although the networks had to overcome opposition to the coverage from the Scottish FA, who were worried that attendances at Junior football matches might be hit.[8] The 1962 World Cup in Chile was covered in delayed form by the BBC with film having to be carried by air via the United States back to Britain. Matches were generally seen three days after they were played, though every match was covered by the BBC with commentary.

With intercontinental communications satellites in their infancy and videotape a new advance, the first tournament to gain widespread international live coverage was the 1966 tournament, which was held in England. The tournament, which England won, increased the popularity of the sport. With more football viewers than ever, Match of the Day thrived - switching from BBC Two to BBC One to reach a wider audience. ITV's regional coverage had also expanded during this period with London weekend company ATV launching Star Soccer in October 1965, Southern Television's Southern Soccer and ABC's World of Soccer also began to appear regularly in the TV Times Sunday schedules. London Weekend Television's The Big Match started in 1968, and eventually the entire ITV network's football coverage would be broadcast under its title.

Rise of live League coverage[edit]

The demand for football grew through the 1970s and early 1980s, and the decision to start screening live league matches was almost inevitable; a deal was struck for the start of the 1983-84 season and the first live league match since 1960 was screened on ITV, between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest, on 2 October 1983. Spurs would also feature in the BBC's first live league match at Manchester United on a Friday night a few weeks later.

By the late 1980s the value of live TV coverage had rocketed; while a two-year contract for rights in 1983 had cost just £5.2m, the four-year contract exclusively landed by ITV in 1988 cost £44m, a fourfold increase per year. There was now a situation where live football was on TV almost every Sunday afternoon from about November onwards, as ITV screened top-flight football most weeks and the BBC had the rights to the FA Cup that occupied other weekends.

With top-flight football proving particularly lucrative, in 1992 the clubs of the Football League First Division voted to quit the league en masse and set up their own league, the Premier League. They eventually opted to agree a deal with Sky Sports rather than ITV or the BBC, meaning leading live top-flight football was no longer available on terrestrial television. ITV continued to show second tier matches on a regional basis for a time and also later on its unsuccessful ITV Digital platform.

Football on television today[edit]

Fans watch an England international in HDTV in a cinema, 2006

Coverage of Premier League now dominates football on English television, especially in financial terms; the contracts agreed between the league and broadcasters BSkyB in 1992 and 1997 were worth £191.5m and £670m respectively. Sky were also able to show more live games than previously, with several games live on many matchdays (originally Sundays and Mondays). However, the European Union objected to what it saw as a monopoly on television rights and demanded the 2007 contract be split into separate packages of 23 games; eventually Sky won four of the six available packages, with the other two were taken by Setanta Sports. Setanta went bankrupt in 2009 with its packages taken over by ESPN. From 2010/11, Sky have five packages and ESPN one. The top tier still has a presence on terrestrial television in highlights form on Match of the Day.[9]

From the 2009/10 season, live coverage of the Football League returned to British terrestrial television for the first time since 2001 with the BBC securing 10 live Championship (second tier) games per season, as well as Football League highlights after Match of the Day. Sky also showed live lower league football while Setanta also showed large numbers of Conference National games before the channels demise.

There is also extensive coverage of numerous Cup competitions. Every match in the Champions League (formerly European Cup) is available either on ITV or Sky Sports while ITV is also the primary broadcaster of the FA Cup with two live games per round while Sky and the BBC show the League Cup. ITV4 and ESPN show the Europa League with even the Football League Trophy getting live television exposure on Sky Sports.

Premier League satellite decoder case[edit]

English football on television
Court European Court of Justice
Citation(s) C-403/08

The Premier League holds an exclusive contract with broadcasters British Sky Broadcasting. Some public houses install foreign satellite television decoders hardware to enable customers to watch live Premier League games in their establishment.

The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that EU law on the free movement of goods should be applied to the decoder cards.

In 2007 Karen Murphy, a Portsmouth publican, was convicted under s297(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA), in that on two occasions she: ‘… dishonestly received a programme included in a broadcasting service provided from a place in the United Kingdom with intent to avoid payment of any charge applicable to the reception of the programme.’ In 2012, the European Court ruled that blocking foreign satellite TV breached EU single market rules.[10] The English high court quashed Mrs Murphy's convictions.

Kick-off times[edit]

Each weekend as many as five Premier League games will be moved to be shown on Sky Sports or BT Sport. The main kick-off times for TV games are 12:45 and 5:30pm on Saturdays, 1:30pm and 4:00pm on Sundays, and 8pm on Mondays. Other games may also be moved to Sunday if one of the teams involved played in a UEFA Europa League fixture on a Thursday. This can result in 12:00pm, 2:05pm and 4:10pm Sunday kick-offs (with the Saturday 12.45pm game being rescheduled for Sunday at 12:00pm and Sunday 1:30pm and 4:00pm games being rescheduled to 2:05pm and 4:10pm respectively), Monday night football is most popular just before European competition games, mainly when Sky Sports want to broadcast three Championship games over the weekend.

Sky will almost always show a Saturday 5:30pm as well as a Sunday 4:00pm game live, typically following a Sunday 1:30pm kick off as part of a Super Sunday. Sky aim to show their best game of the weekend in the 4:00pm slot, but police restrictions on local derbies mean this is not always possible. Premier League games scheduled for midweek may also be picked for live broadcast by Sky on Tuesday or Wednesday nights at either 7:45pm or 8:00pm.

BT Sport typically broadcast live Premier League games at 12:45pm on Saturdays.

Each broadcaster is subjected to restrictions on the number of times they can show a team live per season to ensure fair distribution of TV revenue, after 1995–2000 saw 90 percent of Saturday games involving Manchester United.

In the previous seasons, Sky showed the Saturday 12:45pm game while ESPN showed the 5:30pm game on the same day. This was switched in the 2013-14 season where BT Sport showed the 12:45pm game and Sky showed the 5:30pm game.

3pm "Blackout"[edit]

In the 1960s, controversial Burnley F.C. Chairman Bob Lord successfully convinced fellow Football League Chairmen that televised matches on a Saturday afternoon would have a negative effect on the attendances of other football league games that were not being televised and as a result reduce their financial income.

As a result The FA, Premier League and Football League do not want English matches to be televised live between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday within the United Kingdom. Until recently, the FA Cup Final was an exception and had been broadcast on 3pm on a Saturday in May; however, in 2012, the FA Cup Final was moved to 5pm.

In February 2011, Advocate General Kokott of the European Court of Justice opined that the "closed periods" did not encourage match attendance at other league games.

It is, in fact, doubtful whether closed periods are capable of encouraging attendance at matches and participation in matches. Both activities have a completely different quality to the following of a live transmission on television. It has not been adequately shown to the Court that the closed periods actually encourage attendance at and participation in matches. Indeed, there is evidence to refute this claim: for example, in an investigation of the closed periods under competition law the Commission found that only 10 of 22 associations had actually adopted a closed period. No closed periods were adopted in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, or in Northern Ireland, that is to say, within the sphere of influence of English football.

Advocate General Kokott of the European Court of Justice[11]

To avoid this blackout, the last day of the Premier League, when all ten games must kick-off simultaneously, is always played on a Sunday. Championship (second tier) last day fixtures used to be always on a Sunday at 12.30pm but are now always on a Saturday at 12.30pm.

Live radio broadcasts are permitted, both nationally and locally; these may be simulcast on the internet, depending on the broadcaster. Viewers outside the UK can still watch these games live on foreign broadcasters, thus creating somewhat of a grey market within the UK with viewers able to subscribe to or watch streams of foreign channels.

The Premier League and Sky maintain that, while grey market viewing of games is not illegal on the part of the viewer, it is illegal for anyone (such as a public house) to make such services openly available. This has in the past lead to heavy fines for public houses in the United Kingdom which have shown 3pm games in their establishments. More recently, the legality of such fines has been disputed, and a number of Crown Court cases have been reported in which publicans successfully challenged the Premier League's position.[12]

In recent years, Sky Sports has shown 3pm games on tape delay on their Football First show, either in full or as extended highlights.


  1. ^ "Happened on this day - 16 September". BBC Sport. 16 September 2002. Retrieved 22 August 2006. 
  2. ^ "The History of the BBC: The First Television Era". 2006. Retrieved 22 August. 
  3. ^ a b "Goalmouths - TV's Voices of Football". Off The Telly. 
  4. ^ Martyn Smith. Match Of The Day 40th Anniversary. pp. 10–11. 
  5. ^ Gary Imlach. My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes. pp. 152–153. 
  6. ^ John Bourn. "History of football on ITV".  Note that the reference says Match of the Week started in 1963; however according to Soccerbase, Ipswich's 3-2 loss to Wolves actually occurred in 1962.
  7. ^ Kenneth Wolstenholme. 50 Sporting Years And It's Still Not All Over. pp. 113–118. 
  8. ^ Gary Imlach. My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes. pp. 96–109. 
  9. ^ BBC (28 January 2009). "BBC retain Premier League rights". BBC News. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  10. ^ "The landscape post-Murphy". Blackstone Chambers. Retrieved 17 February 2013. 
  11. ^ "OPINION OF ADVOCATE GENERAL KOKOTT". Europa.eu. February 2011. Retrieved 10 March 2013. 
  12. ^ Barrie Clement (12 April 2006). "Pubs win the right to show football on Saturday afternoons". London: The Independent. Retrieved 8 August 2006. 


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