Playing catch up: Premier League round to air live in UK

Television viewers in the Premier League’s home market will get to watch a full round of games live for the first time this week

Before Clive Tyldesley clambers up to the Old Trafford gantry and picks up his microphone to be part of a landmark week in Premier League broadcasting, he reminisces about being silenced in stadiums.

In the 1980s, local radio listeners on Merseyside could only hear Tyldesley call the second half of games — at most — under restrictions driven by Liverpool’s chief executive at the time.

“Peter Robinson would argue till he was blue in the face that if he gave us the right to commentate on the whole game, it would impact on the attendance at Anfield,” Tyldesley said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Anything that is new and unknown carries an element of suspicion about it.”

Those limitations might seem like a relic of the pre-Premier League era of crumbling stadiums and little access to games beyond them, before Tyldesley became one of Britain’s leading voices in football.

But while so much has changed in the sport and media industry, significant obstacles remain to the domestic broadcasting of the English topflight.

Some fans in the Premier League’s home territory have watched enviously as the rest of the world gained access to every game live from all 38 rounds, with the value of overseas rights growing 35% to 4.2 billion pounds ($5.4 billion) in 2019-2022.

But fewer than half of the 380 games annually have been available live to domestic viewers in a bid to protect attendances at stadiums.

The upcoming 15th round of the season will see a broadcasting barrier broken in England: All 10 games live. In another milestone — illegal feeds aside — games will only be available via internet streaming as Amazon Prime enters the Premier League.

“There’s an element of dipping the toe in the water on both sides,” Tyldesley said.

Amazon is spreading the 10 games this week from Tuesday to Thursday, with Tyldesley working at Old Trafford on Wednesday when Jose Mourinho returns to his former club Manchester United in charge of Tottenham.

Amazon can show entire rounds on the first midweek in early December and around Boxing Day on Dec. 26, muscling into the six-season stranglehold on Premier League live rights in Britain by Comcast-owned Sky and BT Sport.

It comes after a ruling by the broadcasting regulator led to the league raising the number of games on sale for British broadcasts from 168 to 200, although the revenue still dropped 8% from the previous three-year cycle to 5 billion pounds.

BT bought the packages to broadcast another two complete rounds live in 2019-2022 for 90 million pounds, but only for midweek games because of a Saturday afternoon blackout.

No live broadcasts of football are allowed on British screens from 2:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. — even as the rest of the world flicks between games, particularly on American network NBC where Tyldesley has worked with another Amazon signing Graeme Le Saux, the former Chelsea player.

“People tend to take it out on me like it’s my fault: ‘Why does everyone in America get to watch all the games,’” Le Saux said. “I give the phone number of my boss.”

NBC streams some games and takes over non-sports channels on weekends to find outlets for simultaneous Premier League screenings.

“I remember my bosses at NBC when they first bought the rights 6½ years ago saying they were a bit concerned there wasn’t going to be enough content for the channels,” Le Saux said. “Within about two months they were going, ‘We haven’t got enough channels for the content.’”

That is not a problem for Sky and BT when it comes to 3 p.m. on a Saturday.

The only way to keep across those kickoffs through broadcasters is via radio commentaries — with complete games long since permitted since the barriers faced by Tyldesley — or by Sky, BT and BBC shows that switch around grounds with reporters and former players in vision but not the action.

Even if a “clásico” kicks off in Spain during the Saturday blackout period, viewers in Britain are barred from legally seeing Real Madrid against Barcelona live.

Tyldesley leads on World Cup commentaries on ITV, Britain’s leading free-to-air commercial channel which usually aired a game on Sunday from the English topflight until the Sky-led Premier League revolution provided multiple weekly live broadcasts — initially at a cost through a satellite dish.

Tyldesley sees Amazon’s arrival as disrupting established broadcasting norms again.

“The idea that every live professional football game will be available to a viewer by some means … cannot be very far away,” Tyldesley said. “There is almost demand for every game to be available, but for that game to be available specifically to buy on an individual basis.”

All 20 live games on Amazon Prime in December can be seen for the cost of a month’s subscription that includes free shopping deliveries. That points to why Amazon is keen to add to a customer base already in the millions before Christmas.

Tyldesley is one of dozens of familiar presenters, reporters and commentators set to work at match venues for Amazon, which is promising to produce similar broadcast values regardless of the size of the team involved.

“It’s making sure people tuning in to games feel their game is just as important as what we would be seen as the big headline game,” Le Saux said.

But the means of delivery of the broadcasts could require some adjustments for viewers used to just switching on their televisions rather than loading apps or streaming services and relying on the speed of the broadband or 4G connection.

“A lot of people will consume the same Amazon Prime product without hearing a single word we say in the communal environment in a pub,” Tyldesley said. “Some people will watch bits of it on their phone. Some people will watch it on a train on an iPad.

“This is just more of the movement toward servicing the individual tastes and needs of the football television consumer.”

England’s main supporters’ group decried the need to sign up to a third subscription service to watch games and the impact on attendances. Both Tyldesley and Le Saux see the importance of packed stadiums as the backdrop to broadcasts.

“The fans who go in to watch matches are the lifeblood of the Premier League and we have to make sure that is the first priority to protect that and protect the game,” Le Saux said. “But at the same time the sport has become so popular ... and we will see more live broadcasts of domestic matches.”

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.instagram.com/RobHarrisPix