The first few months of the current season brought an online experiment, as part of the new TV deal, which allowed EFL clubs to stream selected games live on a pay-per-view basis, for the first time ever, with a target audience being those fans who could not otherwise get to see their team live.
Many eyebrows were raised when the details of matches which were permitted to be streamed were released, with particular focus on the traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon kick off as possibly taking one step too far within the boundaries of this new initiative.
Speaking about the rationale behind the EFL’s decision to go forward with the streaming of games, United’s director of external affairs and League Two EFL board representative John Nixon said: “This is all part of the new TV deal. When streaming was first introduced it was initially going to be for midweek games, and for the Checkatrade Trophy games.
“That was fine, everyone agreed that should be looked at, then the EFL found out in June last year that, under UEFA rules, lower league clubs could stream games on international weekends, even when the game was scheduled for the previously guarded 3pm kick off time. Those hours have been sacrosanct for years.
“If we’re being honest, that intention was picked up by some clubs on 5 and 20 July, but most clubs weren’t really up to date with it, and it was those clubs who were caught out at the beginning of September when it happened for the first time during the first international weekend.”
“The whole issue centred around the fact that if you were streaming your game as a Championship club, the TV deal meant that Sky could also put the game on the red button,” he explained. “In effect, Championship clubs could stream a match on iFollow, but if you’re already a Sky Sports subscriber then you get it for nothing anyway, because you just have to select your club’s match behind that red button.
“If you’re not a Sky Sports subscriber, that’s when it’s useful to be able to get it on iFollow and, obviously, your club gets the revenue.”
“As was expected, the first streaming of a Saturday fixture caused a lot of debate, and rightly so,” he commented. “I think most football fans will always feel that a 3pm Saturday kick off should be protected, unless there’s a very good reason not to.
“The EFL and its clubs decided to conduct the trial, which ended in October, because it was felt that would give us the ability to assess the actual impact of streaming a game at that time.
“The first thing that took place after the first international weekend was that League One and League Two agreed to go to the end of the trial period, and following that a vote would be taken. At that point it was fairly clear that the streaming of 3pm Saturday games going forward was not going to get much support.”
“However,” he added, “For League One and League Two, it was suggested that we could stream games on Bank Holidays, such as Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.
“Being the League Two board representative, I contacted all of the League Two clubs and 20 of the 24 said they didn’t want to stream on Bank Holidays between the hours of 3pm and 5pm. That was emphatic, to say the least.
“Those games tend be local derby games, so for League One and League Two clubs they bring the biggest income, and we don’t want to lose that. If the EFL say we’ve got to do it, we’ll have to, but if we have a choice, we don’t want to stream those games.”
As for the decision on the streaming of Saturday fixtures, that was discussed further at a December meeting of the member clubs.
“The EFL suggested to the board members at the meeting held at the end of last year that they’ve accepted there will be no streaming of live games on international weekends,” he confirmed. “In terms of Bank Holidays, the whole of the EFL were asked for their thoughts, and the response was 50:50. However, as I say, I asked the League Two clubs, and 20 of the 24 said they didn’t want to stream on Bank Holidays.
“When it was then put forward at the December board meeting that Bank Holiday streaming should be left to the home club to decide, after mutual agreement between the clubs participating in the fixture, as the League Two rep I was able to say that proposal wasn’t the right way forward for League Two clubs.
“First of all, that’s not the way our clubs voted, and secondly the vote across all three leagues was only 50:50. I’d spoken to all of my clubs, and I’d had that large majority telling me that they didn’t want to stream on Bank Holidays, so I was able to pull League Two out of that element of the streaming process.
“Further up, League One and Championship clubs still have the ability to opt to stream their game on a Bank Holiday, after agreement with the other club. That’s why you’ll have noticed that some fixtures in those divisions were streaming on a recent Saturday afternoon.
“The same thing still applies with Championship clubs, if they choose to stream a game on a Bank Holiday, it will be available on the red button on Sky Sports.”
Another area of interest sparked by the launch of club pay-per-view channels has been the distribution process for each £10 which is spent in good faith by the club’s fans as they tune in to iFollow to watch the game.
“It was decided for this season only – and it must stress that it was for this season only – that clubs would keep the money from their own supporters who purchased a match pass through their club’s iFollow service,” he commented. “That’s up for debate because if a fan from the away club purchases the pass through the away club’s channel, it’s the home club who loses out.
“They get nothing for that fan seeing the game live whereas, had that fan made the journey, the match ticket price as a minimum would have gone to the hosting club. A lot of the League Two clubs have already indicated that they feel the majority of the income should go to the home team rather than the away team.
“As it is now, on a ticket sale, we get 5% of every away ticket we sell. If we sold 2,000 tickets for Morecambe, we would get 5% of that value. Whereas, if we sold 2,000 iFollow match passes, we’d get significantly more. That’s just an example.
“I think, next season, the clubs will probably decide to try and arrange a different share of the proceeds. It could be that the home club get 70 to 80% of the iFollow earnings per game. One or two clubs have already indicated to me that would be their preference.
“Again, there was a massive amount of debate surrounding the whole thing. Aside from all of that, the Championship clubs were not, and probably are still not, 100% happy with the red button situation.
“That’s all part of a deal that was agreed and it’s now in place for five years, although it is subject to further discussion between Championship clubs and the EFL.”
With Saturday games appearing to be off the agenda, what next for Bank Holiday fixtures when it comes to streaming line on iFollow?
“The next EFL club meeting is at the end of February, so I did say on their behalf that if the League Two clubs decided they wanted to give streaming a go over the Easter weekend, we’d be quite happy to try that,” he told us.
“At this moment in time, virtually all of the League Two clubs have said they don’t want to stream on Bank Holidays. That means that currently the only games that will be streamed from League Two are midweek games. One or two clubs did say that if the match on a Bank Holiday was a 7.45pm kick off, they’d stream it, but that rarely happens anyway.
“Another of the reasons we decided to not be involved as a division is that it puts club against club. Morecambe against Carlisle on New Year’s Day is a great example. If that game was streamed, we would have said it was fine, because we would have got the income from people watching it on our iFollow platform.
“Morecambe would likely have said ‘no’ to streaming, because they would have lost ticket sales. They could have lost a number of ours fans from the attendance, if we’d been able to stream the game on iFollow, but we would have got the income from the streaming. That’s why a balance needs to be struck that suits all clubs, but it’s certainly an interesting period in terms of how you can follow your club, both for the club and for the fans.”
Media department comment:
From a club point of view, it was picked up very early in the summer that international weekends had been selected for iFollow streaming, and we immediately discussed our concerns about the introduction of something so radical, bearing in mind that the trial run of midweek games had not yet started.
However, what we can’t escape is that the onset of technology has changed the way people expect to consume things, with the use of smart phones and tablets continually on the increase. As we’ve all seen, some major high street names have suffered with shopping habits changing to the online market place at the expense of footfall on the high street and in the shopping malls.
Transfer that to sport, and you can watch live games and events via bespoke channels, or even betting channels, from almost any country in the world, as it happens.
Football can’t ignore that and, for that reason, we felt this season’s trial run of live streaming was a necessity. Again, from our point of view, the trial wasn’t about how much revenue it would generate, but how many fans who genuinely could not travel to our fixtures would now be able to watch the game.
The discussion then, of course, becomes about what percentage of viewers watching the game via iFollow, and who live within the Carlisle catchment area (in other words, they could feasibly make it to the game in person), will then choose to stay at home and watch the game on a hand-held device or tablet?
How do you decide the acceptable percentage figure of online viewers within, say, a 40-mile radius before you deem live streaming of games to be detrimental to the physical attendance figures?
How do you know, from viewing figures alone, whether or not a person living close to Brunton Park is genuinely in a situation where they can’t make it to the game, and has therefore found iFollow to be a fantastic option because, even though the ground is on their doorstep, they would not otherwise have been able to see the action?
Carlisle United had 40% of people who viewed fixtures during the trial period who lived within a 40-mile radius of Brunton Park. Who determines if this is a success, a failure, or if that percentage is actually a risk to attendance numbers?
Over 500 people subscribed to iFollow United to watch the first three streamed fixtures [Port Vale, Cambridge and Morecambe]. Before a ball had been kicked, we decided that anything over 100 fans per fixture would be, to say the least, interesting. Where does it leave us having come close to doubling that guesstimate?
Cutting to the quick, is the revenue earned additional cash the club would not otherwise get, or is it lost revenue now that those fans have decided that watching at home is better than going to the ground?
Do we simply have to ‘move with the times’ and accept that supporters of football at all levels want to be able to choose how they watch their team, in our case whether they live on Warwick Road or not?
What this trial appears to have done for League Two, as explained above, is bring into focus the debate about Saturday streaming. Clubs in our division have said no going forward – Carlisle United said no – but you only need to take one step up to see that the opinion changed quite dramatically, as we saw just two weeks ago when League One and Championship clubs streamed Saturday matches after the trial period had ended. This will remain the case going forward.
As things stand, we remain very open-minded about midweek streaming. It was very well received and very well presented (the one-camera option can be frustrating, but by and large it was accepted as being good, with the quality of the stream high on those devices which had the correct updates, software and hardware).
Saturday streaming is something more of an issue. The gut feeling here, and certainly our wish, is that it should remain ring-fenced, but we’ll be watching EFL discussions closely to see their opinion on the best way forward following this season’s streaming trials.
Once the second quarter figures come out in late February / early March, for the next run of streamed fixtures through September and October last year, we will start to get more of a sense of the true impact of this trial.
For now, if you have any strong feelings about iFollow and live match streaming, please get in touch and let us know.
Do you live in Carlisle and did you subscribe? If so, why? Will you be doing so again?
Do you live away from Carlisle and subscribe? How useful did you find the service, and would you use it regularly?
How do you feel about Saturday streaming?
In fact, how do you feel about streaming midweek?
Do you think you should be able to watch your football how you want, where you want?
This article is intended to provide us with food for thought - email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments or thoughts at all on iFollow.
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Thank you, in advance, for your constructive input.