From the lower leagues into non-league, and from the Ireland Premier Division to the Scottish Championship, it has become a go-to phrase for clubs battling against digital distractions.
“Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that football is a TV show.”
Those 13 words tug at the heartstrings of the traditionalist fan, who will readily recall Saturday 3pm kicks offs as a staple of the game and match-going as a must to get a fix of football, writes GARETH ROBERTS.
Without getting too nostalgic, it’s clear that every aspect of the game has transformed in the most dramatic of fashion since football clubs were born from communities up and down the land.
Where once clicking through the turnstiles week after week was a given for the football fanatic, now blanket television coverage – legal and otherwise – offers an appealing alternative.
Throw in the growth in gaming, on-demand films and TV, and it’s all-too-obvious that the smaller clubs in the football pyramid face an ongoing battle to stay relevant in the eyes of the young.
It’s an issue that stretches near and far wherever you are. “Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that football is a TV show,” has been used to advertise junior season tickets at Portsmouth, to promote matches at Maidenhead United, to tempt dads and lads in the ground at Prescot Cables and to try to boost gates at Shamrock Rovers, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Crawley Town and Maldon and Tiptree, among others.
It’s an issue that is clearly concerning those trying to balance the books at clubs that can’t rely on the millions that wash around at the top of the game.
And it’s one that could potentially be made worse by a growing will to scrap the Saturday 3pm blackout.
The rule, which has existed since the 1960s, prohibits the broadcast of live games between 2.45pm and 5.15pm in the UK.
But in recent times a creep towards change and challenge has been clear to see.
Last year, Eleven Sports – a digital-only broadcaster with rights to Spanish and Italian games – began streaming matches during the blackout period.
It later reversed the decision but a statement from the company read: “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.”
Also in 2018, The Football League allowed League One and League Two fixtures to be screened domestically at 3pm on a Saturday during an international break when the ‘blocked hours’ rule doesn’t apply.
Among the critics of the decision was Andy Holt, the chairman of League One side Accrington Stanley.
Holt often turns to social media to highlight the difficulties of running the club, recently emphasising how a big away following for a match at the Crown Ground had helped to balance the books.
And on the move to show the football live for a Saturday 3pm, he wrote on Twitter: “Project Genie. @EFL codename for the breaking of the ‘no live football’ on Saturday 14.45-17.15 … Has the Genie been let out of the bottle?”
“This kills our income and destroys atmosphere. It was only international viewers when we considered it first. Then they added Tuesday night matches.
“The option to join with five international weekends has never been mentioned by @EFL. They deliberately misled us. They know what they’re doing, don’t worry about that.”
For the big clubs it’s unlikely to be a problem. Many boast season-ticket waiting lists, regularly sell out and can carry on safe in the knowledge that a televised game is unlikely to hit attendances.
Can the same be said further down the food chain?
If it becomes possible to watch top-level football from first rise in the morning on Saturday to last thing at night on Sunday, the appeal of experiencing lower league, or non-league, football is potentially reduced.
Why brave the cold and sip on a Bovril when you can kick back on the sofa and click a button?
It’s not just the football clubs that pay their players either. Junior clubs and amateur teams have suffered similar problems.
Anyone who has played at any level will know how difficult it is to raise a team of players when it’s damp, dark or teeming with rain. With the added temptation of a big match to watch on the television, that challenge is only going to get harder.
Football should be committed to finding a balance, not just making decisions that benefit the few rather than the many.
Yes, there is a huge audience for televised games, worldwide and domestically. But grassroots, through non-league and lower league needs to be considered, and protected, too.
The sights and sounds of a football match, the feeling of being part of something, the energy that can radiate from being present in a moment – none of that can be replicated by television.
That experience should be cherished and encouraged for the next generation. It’s what made us fans. It’s why we spend the money we do on the game.
Football isn’t a TV show, it’s much much more than that.