The Premier League drew criticism and disdain from across football and beyond on Friday when it announced plans to screen matches played behind closed doors on pay-per-view TV.
With seven months having passed since fans were last allowed to attend stadiums and with the top flight in dispute with government and the rest of the football pyramid over its responsibility to help stave off financial disaster for the game, the news was the public relations version of conducting a two-footed tackle on yourself.
In a temporary arrangement that is to be reviewed at the end of October, half of the remaining matches over the next three weeks will be shown on BT Sport and Sky Sports’ pay-per-view platforms, priced at £14.95 a match. That fee comes on top of a standard subscription charge and, for many fans, the cost of season tickets that have already been paid for, and deferred, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first two games to be shown on pay-per-view will be Chelsea v Southampton (BT) and Newcastle v Manchester United (Sky) on 17 October.
The proposals were approved at a Premier League shareholders’ meeting on Friday. arranged at short notice but the plans did not come as a surprise to clubs who have been debating the merits of such a scheme for up to a month. The measures were overwhelmingly approved, with Leicester reportedly the only club to vote against in a 19-1 decision.
Despite having had time to prepare for the change, the overwhelmingly critical response appears to have caught the league by surprise. Gary Neville was amongst the first out of the blocks, the Sky Sports pundit tweeting: “This is a really bad move by the Premier League to charge £14.95 for single matches that have been shown free for 6 months !” he wrote on his official account.
Neville was not alone, however. One insider with close knowledge of the Premier League’s TV business called the decision “bonkers” and suggested it may undermine future collective deals.
The Football Supporters’ Association, who has asked for all matches to be televised while fans cannot be present, called on the Premier League to rethink the idea. “We would urge BT Sport and Sky Sports to reconsider their pricing for these games,” a spokesperson said.
“Many Premier League clubs have already taken money from fans, particularly season ticket holders, for matches they can’t attend, so we urge them to get refunds out to those supporters as soon as possible.”
It is understood there is no mechanism for fans to redeem their season tickets for access to pay-per-view matches, unlike a similar scheme in the EFL where fans can set their tickets against a £10 charge to watch on the iFollow app. Nor is it clear how the money earned will be distributed, although it is thought all money beyond production costs will go to the clubs.
Premier League insiders believe the price of the matches is competitive when compared to the EFL offer, but the organisation has plainly been caught out by the outpouring of criticism that is not just about the individual cost but a broader sense that fans are being ignored at a time of crisis for the game.
Gary Caffel, the utilities editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said fans were being treated as “cash cows”. “With grounds still closed, it leaves loyal fans with a tough decision”, he said. “Pay the extra £15 per game for those matches not included in their usual subscriptions, which were shown free at the end of last season, or miss seeing their club in action. Many will feel they are being treated as cash cows once again.”
The news comes at the end of a week in which the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Masters, joined with other senior figures in the game to call on government to rethink its decision to abandon plans to return fans to games.
In a statement, the Premier League spokesperson said the new TV agreement will be “regularly reviewed in consultation with clubs and in line with any decisions made by government regarding the return of spectators to stadiums.
“Football is not the same without supporters at matches. The Premier League and our clubs remain committed to the safe return of fans as soon as possible.”