With the EFL streaming rights for next season and beyond up for grabs, Sky Sports have come to face some strong competition from some new up-and-coming sites in the football TV scene. But how could a potential £200 million impact English football, more specifically Reading?
Per season, 1656 EFL matches take place, of which just 8%, or 138 matches, are televised live on Sky Sports. This leaves 26 clubs who have not been seen on TV throughout the entire campaign. This deal is worth £119 million per season.
To make up for this lack of exposure, most clubs offer iFollow, with the rest - including Reading - broadcasting independently. Anyone in Britain with a bit of nous and a VPN can theoretically get around the viewing restrictions, but there’s no getting round paying £10 for the privilege, which is frankly outrageous in my opinion. To be fair, so is £31 to see us ship five to Middlesbrough on a 500-mile round trip, but, that’s football I suppose.
Last October, the EFL opened bidding for all of their games from 2024 onwards, including the league, EFL Cup and EFL Trophy. Sky, TNT Sports (formerly BT), DAZN and Viaplay were reportedly among the interested parties, and the EFL reached out to more streaming services too, including Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google and Netflix. This new round of media rights could pull a far increased figure of around £200 million annually. Sky Sports was named as the preferred bidder this week, although a final deal hasn’t been reached.
The real question is how much would a global audience want to watch Rochdale vs Stevenage, or even a Championship match such as Preston North End vs Reading? We see the success stories of Wrexham and Sunderland’s documentaries, and the incredible attention and coverage they can gain, especially in America, but unless Leonardo DiCaprio fancies a new gig in Berkshire, we’re unlikely to get that sort of exposure. Especially as the club is well over 25 years old.
The 3pm blackout
The most recent interest comes from DAZN, and if they were theoretically successful, this would spell the end of the 3pm blackout. The rule has been knocking about since the 1960s, and to be honest, is outdated.
In the current climate of Reading Football Club, most casual fans would be hard pressed to want to attend a lot of games, especially away. I don’t think a more accessible way of viewing matches would discourage the hardcore fans, and could even start encouraging more to go to games if they can experience the atmosphere and team before the commitment of travelling to the stadium.
In other areas we’re moving with the times, such as when the traditional FA Cup times were scrapped, shorter variations of cricket matches such as The Hundred were introduced, and Wimbledon ditched the middle Sunday rest day. The way younger generations consume football nowadays is almost exclusively online, and the EFL must grow to these audiences.
Nothing can compete with seeing a match live, and I don’t believe the lower- and non-league game would suffer because of it. We saw after Covid how, despite the Premier League resuming, non-league attendances boomed to levels never seen before, and surely the ongoing cost-of-living crisis would push people towards live, local football rather than paying presumably extortionate amounts for streaming the EFL?
What could these changes mean?
For Reading, these changes could be massive. DAZN feels the EFL is vastly underexposed, so their proposed plan to the EFL promises to help “close the gap” on the Premier League on terms of revenue, and also is open to partnering with another broadcaster, such as the BBC or ITV, and would offer games for free during primetime slots.
Their coverage could also feature “beefed up behind-the-scenes footage, watch-alongs, stats, in-play betting and vastly superior camera angles and production values than the basic iFollow service for which clubs currently charge £10 a game”.
The pricing would reportedly be “competitive”, although it’s not exactly hard to compete price wise when watching the Premier League costs over £100 monthly, and you don’t even get the 3pm games.
Too good to be true?
It’s easy to reminisce about the absolute horror show that was the launch of ITV Digital in 2001, when a pledge of £315 million towards Football League clubs soon fell through after it was discovered that - well - no one really cared enough to watch. After 30 clubs were under threat, and the league on life support, Sky Sports bailed ITV out with an investment worth less than a quarter than ITV’s, but it was vital to keep football afloat.
This is essentially where the ever-growing gap between the Premier League and the EFL began, after trust in TV companies broke down and clubs returned to more traditional streams of income. Sky have had a monopoly over streaming games since, but have regularly let fans down still.
Six Reading league matches have been rearranged by Sky Sports so far this season to be televised - Stoke City at home, QPR away, Preston North End at home, Birmingham City away, Swansea City at home and Cardiff City away - while a further two have been moved but not televised: Norwich City away and West Bromwich Albion away.
I can’t quite think of anything more galling than seemingly set-in-stone fixtures being moved around as short as a month away from the game itself. It’s safe to say many Reading fans are not a fan of Sky Sports.
So would the DAZN, or any other streaming deal, be beneficial to the Royals? I guess only time will tell. Sky Sports are bad, but who knows what’s around the corner?
Maybe it’s a case of better the devil you know...