Friday night football: a new dawn that has left fans feeling Sky’s the limit

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

Contrary to what Gil Scott-Heron told us all those years ago, the revolution will be televised. On Friday night comes the first of 10 matches that are to take place on that day of the week during this Premier League season – Manchester United v Southampton – and the hope at Sky Sports is that having paid billions for the right to show top-flight football in a new primetime slot, millions tune in to see what is on offer.

Live Friday night football is not a new concept in this country; after all, Sky has been showing Football League fixtures on a Friday for some time while on Friday 14 August last year it broadcast Manchester United’s 1-0 victory at Aston Villa. However, that scheduling was because of “unique circumstances” while what begins on Friday is long-term – a product of the record £5.14bn TV deal Sky and BT Sport signed with the Premier League for the next three seasons.

Sky’s contribution stands at £4.2bn, an 83% increase on what it paid in the previous round of rights sales and which entitles it to show 10 more fixtures, up from 116 to 126. Those 10 are essentially the Friday games, or “Package E” as they were marked by the Premier League during broadcast negotiations.

Having put its money where its cameras are, it is perhaps no surprise Sky has chosen to make United v Southampton its debut offering – José Mourinho’s first competitive appearance on the Old Trafford touchline as the home team’s manager, Paul Pogba expected to make his United debut following his world-record move, and against a side who have triumphed in each of their past two visits. Intrigue and near-guaranteed drama at the same time EastEnders is starting on BBC1, and it would not come as a surprise if David de Gea beat Danny Dyer in the battle for ratings.

Great news for armchair supporters but among those who attend games there is not only the feeling that Friday night fixtures further chip away at the long-established rhythm of watching football in this country – specifically at 3pm on a Saturday – but also it is going to cause them practical problems. That is certainly the case for some Southampton fans who planned to be at Old Trafford but cannot because their team’s first away trip of the season has been moved forward.

One affected group is the Committee of Loyal Saints Living Around Watford (Colslaw), an official Southampton supporters’ association made up of 120 members, 40 of whom travel to away games. Of those, 15 regularly attend Manchester United away, but this season only three will do so because the change means they cannot get home on the train. The last southbound service from Manchester on Friday, and which gets people home before the sun rises, departs at 9.15pm, some 35 minutes before the final whistle at Old Trafford.

Man United away is a trip we really look forward to,” says the Colslaw founder, Mark Howie. “Those of us who go make a day of it – get to Manchester early, find a real ale pub, that sort of thing, but we can’t do that this season because it’s been moved to a Friday, which makes getting there difficult and getting back practically impossible. We all travel on the train, meeting up from various locations, and to do that for this game would mean booking an overnight stay at a hotel, which is not economically viable for most of us.”

Howie, a former Southampton season-ticket holder who resides in Daventry, is among the Colslaw members who will not be at Old Trafford having attended Southampton’s 1-0 wins there in 2015 and 2016 – on a Sunday and Saturday respectively – and for the 56-year-old being able to watch the match on television comes as little compensation. “For starters I don’t have Sky Sports,” he says. “But I also don’t want to watch Southampton on TV, I want to be at the ground cheering them on with my friends. For me that’s the best thing about being a supporter.”

Another fan affected by the scheduling change is James Vallence. The 29-year-old season-ticket holder attends around 10 away games a season, with Old Trafford a regular destination. Not this year, though, as Vallence could not secure the required time off work. Leaving straight after he clocks off is also not an option because Vallence would not be able to get from his office in Basingstoke to the ground in time for the 8pm kick-off given the 202 miles he would need to cover by car during what is one of the most traffic-heavy periods of the week.

“Man Utd away is a special game for me because I went to Manchester Metropolitan University, so it’s not just about attending a prestige fixture but also going back to a city that’s played an important part in my life,” Vallence says. “Friday night games are clearly going to be a problem for supporters who have to travel long distances.”

Howie and Vallence will not be at Old Trafford but 2,441 other Southampton fans will be after the club sold out their ticket allocation at the start of the month. In part that is because the club’s new shirt sponsor, Virgin Media, has laid on free coach travel to and from Manchester for season-ticket holders who are eligible for a match ticket.

The measure is to be applauded and it testifies to the inconvenience caused by moving matches to a Friday, in particular ones involving teams separated by hundreds of miles and limited train routes. And anyone thinking Sky’s less than convenient scheduling choice is a one-off should take note of the two other Friday night games it has announced – Chelsea v Liverpool on 16 September and Everton v Crystal Palace 14 days later; in each case a 442-mile round trip for the bulk of away supporters, with the last return train departing before the end of the games.

Sky is keen to stress that 10 Friday matches works out at approximately one a month during the season, so any disruption caused by its selection of games for this slot will be minimal, and that when there is a Friday match, one will not be selected for broadcast on the following Monday.

The Premier League is also relaxed about the situation, pointing out the 20 top-flight clubs agreed to matches being moved to a Friday slot before the latest round of rights negotiations and given the amount of money broadcasters pay to the clubs to show their games, they are fully entitled to adjust the fixture list in order to maximise viewing figures. Even at a conservative estimate, the total amount raised once international rights are taken into account is likely to be in the region of £8.5bn over the next three seasons, meaning the bottom-placed team in the Premier League during that period will receive around £99m, while the champions secure £156m.

Both Sky and the Premier League are also keen to point out that in March it was agreed that all top-flight away tickets would be capped at £30 for the next three seasons, so while some fans may continue to be inconvenienced by the shifting of games for TV, many more will benefit financially in the coming months and years.

Many match-goers are also excited by the introduction of Friday night football, with one belief being it will boost the all too often stagnant atmosphere at Premier League stadiums because spectators arrive straight from work or the pub in a state of “the weekend is here” delirium. It can also be argued that when it comes to scheduling, the horse bolted some time ago. Premier League matches have been played on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings ever since Sky won the rights to broadcast the revamped top flight in 1992, with many now also taking place, on and off TV, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and, occasionally, Thursdays. Southampton’s first match at Old Trafford after they secured promotion to the Premier League in 2012 took place on 30 January 2013 – a Wednesday.

“Having your matches moved around for TV is a by-product of being in the Premier League and all supporters want their team to be in the Premier League, so to an extent you just have to accept it,” Vallence says. “It should also be remembered matches get moved to inconvenient times in the lower leagues, too. I remember us playing Hartlepool away on a Tuesday night a few seasons back, which was ridiculous.

“There’s an argument to make for the scheduling of all midweek matches, whether they are on TV or not, to take into consideration the distances away supporters need to travel – some sort of radius rule.”

From the Football Supporters’ Federation’s point of view, Friday night football is less of an issue than the increase of televised football in general, something its chief executive, Kevin Miles, raised with Ofcom in December 2014, claiming via letter that such an increase “would have a detrimental impact on match atmosphere and the interests of supporters”.

Two months later, the current TV deal was struck, which sees the number of live matches shown in the UK rise by 14; the 10 extra on Sky supplemented by four extra on BT Sport, with the latter paying £960m for the privilege of showing a total of 42 Premier League matches in each of the next three seasons.

“While clubs benefit from the £5bn-plus domestic media rights, not enough of this money is used to help fans,” said an FSF spokesman. “We’d like to see clubs use more of this money to mitigate against the worst examples [of scheduling] – clubs could, for example, use TV money to put on free coaches or rail travel for away supporters.

“There also seems to be an increased appetite from sponsors to help fans, with recent examples at Southampton and [Nottingham] Forest – that’s something we’d definitely encourage.”

Such is the FSF’s focus on the role of sponsors that it encouraged Virgin Media to subsidise away tickets for all fans visiting St Mary’s this season to £20, in line with its long-standing Twenty’s Plenty campaign, and last week was able to announce the company had agreed to the measure.

That is welcome news and may well be toasted by those Southampton supporters travelling on the sponsor’s coaches to Old Trafford as British football’s long and lucrative relationship with TV enters a new phase, one that is sure to be lapped up in living rooms and pubs across the country but has left some feeling they have been prevented from carrying out one of their life’s great passions.

“Sky are not bothered about travelling fans like us, they’re more concerned about satisfying their advertising clients and making as much money as possible,” Howie says. “More and more it feels like the heart is being ripped out of football in this country.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sachin Nakrani, for The Guardian on Friday 19th August 2016 00.09 Europe/London

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