iFollow The Money: Are Lower League Clubs Getting A Fair Shake?

By Paula Marcus

With the introduction of the new iFollow streaming service for overseas Football League fans this season, the door has been well and truly opened for new ways for lower league fans to watch their teams. Last week this was taken to the next level with a new Sky deal enabling UK based fans to stream all midweek games not already selected for TV. But is this as good as it seems?


In terms of the basics of the deal, it is a significant increase of 36% on the previous deal. The EFL will now collect £120/$162 million per year (£600/$813 million over the course of the five year contract), up from just under £90/$120 million per year for the previous agreement. Despite the considerable increase in value, not everyone is happy. Derby County owner Mel Morris has been arguing that the way in which TV rights are sold should be restructured.


Currently, the money is divided between the EFL’s three divisions, with an average League One club receiving around 20% less than those teams in the divisions above. This drops a further 30% in League Two. The argument over the current deal revolves around the reality that viewing figures are higher in the higher division. Out of roughly 150 games televised, only 20-30 broadcast games are actually required to feature teams outside of the Championship.


The ‘larger’ clubs in both the Championship and League One feel that they aren’t getting as much as they should be. The current Premier League deal, also ending in the next few years is worth over £5/$6.8 billion, meaning that the team that finished bottom last season earned more for that year than the EFL did for three divisions. Viewing figures, however, don’t reflect such a difference in valuation. Premier League games attract roughly three times more views per games.


That aside, allowing the individual divisions to negotiate their own deals, or selling off certain packages separately (such as playoffs) will see a drastic reduction in funding to the bottom tiers. The EFL has the difficult job of trying to create a package that is best for all their member teams, and it remains to be seen if this new deal achieves this.


So that’s the money side done, now what about the deal itself? As the deal doesn’t begin until 2019 there are a lot of question marks over how this new streaming system will work. Current information states that all clubs will be allowed to stream their matches as long as they fall outside the Saturday 2:45 to 5:15pm blackout period and have not been selected for Sky. It seems to be implied that these games will be shown through iFollow, the streaming service set up this year to allow overseas fans to watch every game live as long as the game is not being broadcast (with the blackout only in place within the UK).


The second important question (at least for those of us that don’t follow teams with a large fan base) is how this new deal will influence how games are selected for TV and what impact there will be to overseas broadcast rights. Unlike the Premier League, where almost all games are shown live outside of the UK, the Football League is restricted to showing only the games preselected for TV. Hopefully this will not change with the new deal, much as I enjoy Leeds United, Aston Villa and Sunderland being shown almost every week.


Ironically, it is probably the presence of some of these so called ‘larger’ teams that have made a deal like this possible. An increase in teams with sizeable fan bases (both at home and overseas) in the Football League will obviously increase demand for games to be shown. In turn this allows for more revenue to be generated through advertising and, in general, makes lower league football far more attractive than it was a decade or two ago.


With the Premier League deal also due to expire, I’m sure they have been following the negotiations with interest. Rumours are already circulating that a similar deal could be agreed for the top division, presumably with clubs able to offer their own streaming service. This has become an option, in part due to the conclusion of a UEFA directive prohibiting domestic games from being played at the same time as Champions League games.


The final issue really lies around the blackout period and ensuring it is protected. Football has never been more accessible to so called armchair fans. But for many this isn’t enough. There are numerous fans in the lower divisions that follow Premier League teams but can’t afford, or are unable to access, tickets to see their team. Instead they pay to watch lower league and non league teams.


The aim of the blackout was to always protect smaller clubs, who have a small section of fans that may be inclined to watch their Premier League on TV if available. This new deal may be the first step is assessing if watching games live at home reduces attendances. Three hour round trips from Cardiff to watch midweek home games was never my favourite part of my season ticket, but I’m not sure I would have passed it up to watch at home. We will soon see how many other fans feel that way.

Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.