The solution to Saturday's Celtic broadcast farce

By John McGinley

August 7, 2022

The issue of Scottish Premiership broadcast rights is a thorny subject and, at times, emotive. There’s a lot of anger flying about amongst supporters with regards to Sky Sports, the SPFL, clubs and the SFA – some of it deserved and much of it less so. Ultimately the way forward requires discussion and compromise rather than ranting and raving.

I think most fans are in general agreement that effectively locking out tens of thousands of supporters ready to pay money to watch Celtic, or any other team in Scottish football, is pretty farcical in 2022.

It’s not that any team has a divine right to be on television. Sky Sports selected the Edinburgh derby this weekend, and that’s fine. But with an away ticket allocation of less than 2,000 in Dingwall, coupled with the technology and infrastructure in place to broadcast over the internet, no service being available just comes across as backwards.

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To figure out a solution for these situations moving forward, we have to understand why it wasn’t possible.

There are two factors at play – first, the SFA opt-in to a 3pm Saturday TV blackout rule and, secondly, the SPFL’s TV deal with Sky Sports prevents the broadcast of matches inside the UK & Ireland that aren’t on their platform.

Those who feel the blackout is necessary don’t own the opinion out of spite. There’s a fear that getting rid of it could impact crowds or even, down the line, result in English Premier League clubs marketing paid streams specifically to Scottish audiences at a time the football down south is already having a detrimental impact on the game up here.

Meanwhile, Sky were the only substantive bidder for TV rights, and it’s their cash that makes up the majority of prize money dished out to clubs in Scotland. They have paid for exclusivity and the SPFL will enforce that.

The arguments favouring both are decent ones but don’t need to be a barrier to progress.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that we have to have a more flexible agreement in place. One that could suit all parties while also providing some much-needed modernity in terms of servicing fans and ensuring it’s always possible to watch your team when tickets aren’t available.

If the primary fear of official PPV broadcasts and streams is that it could hurt attendances, then there’s a pretty simple solution – make them available when a percentage of tickets have been sold. As an example – if a club has sold 90% of tickets for a match or an away allocation is fully taken, make a stream available when it isn’t on Sky – if not, prevent additional broadcasts.

Make this a formal agreement. Even if clubs really don’t have an appetite to allow regular broadcasts throughout the UK & Ireland, at least ensure there’s a basic service in place should matches or allocations sell well.

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Clubs have the infrastructure in place for this to be pretty easily done, as far as I know. Many Premiership teams are already broadcasting abroad, and there are at least six cameras in every ground by default.

It wouldn’t take immense organisation to put together a simple PPV service, which has even already been in place over the last two years because of the pandemic, and make it flexible enough to be used at short notice.

Admittedly this would take the goodwill of Sky, with the current TV deal, but they’ve shown they have been willing to do it before, and I can’t see how it materially impacts their business. Beyond this current agreement, solutions should be sought by the SPFL when negotiating the next deal to ensure clubs do have some sort of power when it comes to their own broadcasts.

It would also take initiative from the SFA, with the SPFL’s and ultimately the clubs’ urging. Currently, the SFA are one of only two associations that opt-in to the 3pm blackout, the other being England’s, and they have the authority to forge a better way forward. This isn’t a law, as many assume.

For me, the blackout is archaic and a holdover from a simpler time when it wasn’t pretty easy to find illicit streams or use VPNs regardless. Instead of pushing people towards these services, reach out to the audience and engage them.

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It wouldn’t even be a completely radical modernisation of Scottish football broadcasts. More bold action could be taken in theory beyond 2025 when Sky’s deal is up, such as a centralised streaming service or even wider use of PPV streaming, but if we start with small, common sense solutions, it would at least be progress.

We need to prevent extreme cases such as yesterday’s, when the majority of Celtic season ticket holders had no legitimate way to watch an exciting and entertaining match at Ross County. It was easier to follow the Bhoys in Tokyo than it was in Glasgow.

Cash is hardly swirling around our game as it is, so why not make it as easy as possible for fans to pay in, rather than shutting them out? Fear isn’t a good enough reason not to experiment and push for a better way forward.

In other news, Ange Postecoglou singles out “real special” Celtic performer.