Christ­mas Eve

To trav­el­ling fans, play­ing on Dec 24 may seem the lat­est sin com­mit­ted by modern game, but it is within the power of clubs gorg­ing on tele­vi­sion money to solve the prob­lem

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

When it comes to a clash of home fix­tures be­tween the two most fa­mous Le­ices­ter clubs, City and Tigers have a ba­sic rule of thumb that which­ever of the two are be­ing broad­cast live on tele­vi­sion takes pri­or­ity and the other resched­ules their game.

The safety ad­vi­sory group at­tached to Le­ices­ter City Coun­cil de­crees that nei­ther team can play on the same day with­out af­fect­ing the safety of spec­ta­tors at Welford Road and the King Power Sta­dium, one for­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cle to the pro­posal for this Christ­mas Eve. Sky Sports, sup­ported by the Pre­mier League, wants to switch City’s home game against Manch­ester United from Dec 23 to the fol­low­ing day, Sun­day Dec 24 – a de­ci­sion prov­ing as un­pop­u­lar as many made by Mike Dean.

Be­fore one even gets to train times home, and the dis­man­tling of match­go­ing fans’ Christ­mas sched­ules, there is the is­sue of the Tigers’ home game against Sara­cens at 3pm on Christ­mas Eve, which is be­ing broad­cast on tele­vi­sion. The Aviva Pre­mier­ship rights are, of course, owned by Sky’s ri­vals BT Sport.

The 2017 Christ­mas Eve sched­ul­ing dis­as­ter is unique in re­cent times, but it poses some pretty fun­da­men­tal ques­tions on all sides. A con­se­quence of Dec 24 fall­ing on a Sun­day, and the cur­rent divi­sion of broad­cast rights, has opened the pos­si­bil­ity that we might see the first games played on Christ­mas Eve in 22 years, putting the pres­sure on the clubs and league’s re­la­tion­ship with Sky Sports like never be­fore.

The gen­eral con­sen­sus so far has been that it is Sky Sports which is ru­in­ing Christ­mas – or at least Christ­mas Eve – for those who watch foot­ball in per­son, but equally the clubs know that to let their big­gest cor­po­rate part­ner take all the fire on this one will be dan­ger­ous in­deed.

It is Sky who paid £4.25bil­lion for the last three-year cy­cle of do­mes­tic rights, and while over­seas rights and com­mer­cial in­comes are also soar­ing among the elite, it is Sky’s money that forms the bedrock of the Pre­mier League. For an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pays on av­er­age £11mil­lion for ev­ery one of the 116 games it broad­casts a sea­son, it is sim­ply not pos­si­ble for Sky to write off a week­end of prime-time foot­ball be­cause it might rep­re­sent bad PR for the clubs.

For many match-go­ing fans, Christ­mas Eve foot­ball seems to be re­garded as the lat­est un­for­giv­able sin com­mit­ted by the modern game, and for that rea­son the clubs have been un­will­ing to take own­er­ship of the idea. Never mind that the clubs sold the rights in this form, or that they hap­pily spend the money. In­deed, one gets the dis­tinct feel­ing that, in prin­ci­ple, most of them would have no ob­jec­tion to games on Christ­mas Eve – just as long as it was not they who were play­ing.

Thus far, they have taken the easy op­tion of sid­ing with their sup­port­ers’ con­cerns about the Christ­mas Eve sched­ule rather than ex­plain­ing why all sides find them­selves in this po­si­tion. Chelsea re­leased a state­ment ex­press­ing sym­pa­thy with sup­port­ers groups’ views on the mat­ter, only for it later to mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­pear from their web­site. At Liver­pool, Jur­gen Klopp said that no one re­ally wanted to watch foot­ball on Christ­mas Eve.

Do they? Cer­tainly in rugby there does not seem to have been ma­jor op­po­si­tion to the Tigers’ home game fol­low­ing the sell-out crowd that watched them play away at Ex­eter Chiefs on the same date the pre­vi­ous year.

The Leeds United home game against Manch­ester United in 1995, the Pre­mier League’s last Christ­mas Eve match, at­tracted a full house to what was then, ad­mit­tedly, a mar­quee game.

The prob­lem seems more self­in­flicted, not least the Pre­mier League sched­ul­ing matches in that round be­tween ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tant op­po­nents in­clud­ing New­cas­tle at West Ham, Hud­der­s­field Town at Southamp­ton and Bournemouth at Manch­ester City. There are ob­vi­ous so­lu­tions to a prob­lem that will not oc­cur again un­til 2023, if only there was the will to adopt them.

One would be a sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion to trav­el­ling sup­port­ers on both sides from the clubs in­volved, es­pe­cially in terms of free or sub­sidised trans­port. If it costs more to em­ploy tem­po­rary match-day staff on Christ­mas Eve, then one feels sure that a league that oc­ca­sion­ally pays as­ton­ish­ing wages to very medi­ocre foot­ballers could also af­ford a rea­son­able pre­mium for some of its low­est-paid work­ers.

The clubs would pre­fer the so­lu­tion to come from a Christ­mas truce be­tween Sky and BT Sport. Last time Christ­mas Eve fell on a Sun­day, in 2000 and 2006, Sky was the ex­clu­sive owner of the do­mes­tic rights and could af­ford to move its games to other days. With BT Sport hav­ing the prime Satur­day 5.30pm slot this time around, that al­ter­na­tive is cur­rently im­pos­si­ble.

On top of that, the clubs, al­ready squab­bling over the divi­sion of the next tele­vi­sion deal, know that the broad­cast­ers have to max­imise their earn­ings from the pre­mium-price rights they have bought and that means get­ting value for ev­ery round of matches.

When one chases the money as re­lent­lessly as the Pre­mier League’s 20 share­hold­ers then in­evitably there will be oc­ca­sions when ever more lu­cra­tive rights deals meet the re­al­ity of what is pos­si­ble on the ground.

It just so hap­pens to have come to a head on Christ­mas Eve, a per­fect storm of added strain on the pub­lic ser­vices, ex­tra de­mands made of match-day staff and the un­der­stand­able protests of match­go­ing fans fear­ing chaos on rail and mo­tor­way net­works al­ready un­der pres­sure.

It is within the clubs’ power to solve the prob­lem. If there is to be foot­ball on Christ­mas Eve once ev­ery six years then they can ease the bur­den on ev­ery­one else by spread­ing some of that wealth around to the peo­ple who make it the event it is, from the am­bu­lance driv­ers, to the stew­ards, and the fans.

Fall­ing at Christ­mas as it does, you would not have thought it was that hard a prob­lem for them to grasp.

The clubs would like Sky and BT Sport to have a Christ­mas truce

Christ­mas Eve cracker: To­mas Brolin of Leeds United runs past Manch­ester United’s David Beck­ham on Dec 24, 1995, the last Pre­mier League fix­ture to be played on Christ­mas Eve

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