Eleven backs down over UK blackout rule, but considers legal options
By Simon Ward
Eleven Sports, the international subscription broadcaster, is ending its live UK coverage of matches from Spanish soccer’s top-tier LaLiga during the Saturday afternoon blackout window, but is considering its legal options with regard to the rule, which it regards as obsolete and counter-productive.
In a statement this afternoon, Eleven Sports, which acquired UK rights to LaLiga and Italy’s Serie A ahead of the current season, said: “Out of respect for the wishes of our partners, we will for the time being no longer show matches during the Saturday afternoon blackout period.”
Under Article 48 of the Uefa statutes, member countries are permitted to block the transmission of any games between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday, to safeguard attendances at domestic matches and participation in grassroots football, and the national associations of England, Scotland and Montenegro have signed up to this.
However, in recent weeks, Eleven has been showing fixtures in the protected slot in the UK, including the LaLiga game between Getafe and Levante (pictured) on 6 October, prompting England’s Football Association to look into the issue.
Andrea Radrizzani, the founder of Eleven, said last week that the broadcaster would be continuing with the controversial policy after the international break as it had “the support of LaLiga” and was “in discussions” with Serie A about doing the same.
However, it has now relented, while expressing frustration at the blackout, which it sees as anachronistic and irrelevant when the same matches can be viewed illegally on pirate internet streams.
Eleven said today: “We maintain our strong view that the rule, which dates back to the 1950s, is unfit for the modern, digital era – particularly for overseas games which we hold the rights to.
“The blackout is one of the biggest generators of piracy in the UK. These games are very easily accessed on illegal sites online and it is naïve to think that fans do not watch them because they are not shown on legitimate platforms, except betting sites.
“It is irresponsible to leave the market in the hands of criminals.”
Eleven’s LaLiga broadcasts on Saturday afternoons have prompted doubts over the basis for the UK blackout, and indeed whether it is legally enforceable, and the broadcaster is not ruling out a challenge.
It said: “Fans in the UK should have the freedom and the choice to watch these games legally through the official rights-holder, as they do all over the world. Regrettably, intense pressure from stakeholders within the football establishment means that football fans across the country do not have this option.
“With the best interests of football fans at heart, we are currently considering all legal and regulatory options, including the referral of the case to the appropriate authorities.”
Eleven has been respecting the existing rule with regard to Serie A, blacking out the first 15 minutes of the Udinese-Juventus clash, which kicked off at 5pm on 6 October, with audio commentary only, and did not stream live the Roma-Lazio derby on 29 September either, citing “broadcasting rules” and showing full delayed coverage instead at 5.15pm.
English soccer's top-tier Premier League and second-tier English Football League continue to back the blackout even though their Saturday afternoon matches can be viewed live outside the UK.
Shaun Harvey, the chief executive of the EFL, defended the policy today, saying: "Ultimately what we’re about is protecting two things: protecting live attendances at our games; and protecting participation, and people playing football on a Saturday afternoon.”
The EFL has this year expanded its iFollow streaming service, which enables matches from its Championship, League One and League Two divisions to be viewed live online, to include the domestic market, as well as overseas, albeit Saturday 3pm games still cannot be seen in the UK.
Asked in a media briefing if the EFL remained fully supportive of the blackout, Harvey said: "Absolutely. The origins of Article 48 are intended to protect the game in this country as a whole. You can’t be half-in and half-out of Article 48. The 3pm protection when Premier League and Championship games are being played is absolutely vital.”
Pressed on whether the ban should extend to matches played outside the UK, he said: "Yes, because it breaches the principles of Article 48 [which] stops all games, including domestic games [being shown]. We are of the view that nobody should be able to broadcast games live into this country [in the Saturday afternoon window], and it’s up to the football authorities here to collectively determine that Article 48 should apply.”
The EFL's new live rights deal with Sky, the UK pay-television operator, kicks in next season and is worth £600 million ($788 million) over five years, or £120 million per annum, up from £88.3 million at present.
However, the aforementioned Radrizzani, who is also the owner of the Championship's Leeds United, claimed last week that the level of TV income and the financial disparity with the money-spinning Premier League means it is "really not sustainable to stay in the Championship", and called for the creation of a Premier League 2 to help redress the situation.