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
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