The Football League last night defended itself claims that the interests of television companies now take precedence over those of paying supporters following the outcry provoked by the rescheduling of Sheffield United’s game against Southend.
Nigel Adkins’ side had originally been set to visit Roots Hall on Monday afternoon but this evening’s match, which could effectively signal the end of their play-off hopes, was switched after being selected for live coverage.
The decision angered many United followers when it was announced 10 weeks ago, with a campaign entitled “The Blades Big Sky Bill” being launched to highlight the fact that hundreds had been left out of pocket after pre-booking travel tickets and hotel rooms.
Although the FL insisted it recognised the importance of the issue - fans at Middlesbrough and Leeds have recently voiced similar complaints - a spokesman told The Star: “It isn’t just a question of the interests of broadcasters versus attending supporters. It’s also about what is in the wider interests of Football League clubs and fans generally.
“The League sells the broadcasting rights to matches played in its competitions on a collective basis both domestically and overseas. The proceeds, more than £100m, are then distributed to member clubs across the Championship, League One and League Two to enable them to continue investing in the playing talent that drives interest in their matches and, in some cases, keeps them in business.
“It is now three years since a Football League club last went into administration and that represents significant progress on the previous decade – although we are not at all complacent in this regard.”
Adkins, whose team is 12th in the League One table with eight fixtures remaining, also expressed his frustration when the change was confirmed after revealing United’s training programme would be adversely affected. Officials at Bramall Lane had already negotiated the move of their meeting with Crewe Alexandra - from March 26th to March 25th - in order to provide Adkins’ squad with more preparation time.
Although United’s manager suggested he had tried to prevent further changes to United’s schedule, the FL spokesperson explained why his bid was always doomed to fail, saying: “Under League regulations, which member clubs have democratically approved, the League has the power to re-schedule matches after consultation with any clubs involved, which exists for a number of reasons including broadcasting arrangements.
“The League’s broadcasting agreements, which also establish the match selection process, have been approved by club representatives as part of the process of negotiating and agreeing them. Clubs are thereby bound by those requirements through the regulations.
“In the overwhelming majority of cases clubs are very happy to have their matches selected for broadcast.”
United, who were given 10 weeks notice, travelled to Essex yesterday nine points behind sixth-placed Bradford City but having played a game less than their Yorkshire rivals. Defenders Alex Baptiste and David Edgar are missing due to injury and international obligations respectively while midfielder Florent Cuvelier (hamstring) will also be absent.
Insisting the FL welcomed “constructive input” with those inconvenienced by the rescheduling of games, the spokesman said: “Yes absolutely we do (recognise the importance of the issue) but at the same time the League also has to strike a balance between a variety of other interested parties, including supporters, that want to watch on television, our clubs and the broadcasters, all of whom are a valid part of this important debate.
“In trying to strike this balance, we endeavour to give fans as much notice as possible about any matches being moved for broadcasting reasons.
“We continue to work with clubs and our broadcast partners to minimise wherever possible the level of disruption to supporters, however as a collective group of clubs we have obligations to our broadcasting partners that it is in overwhelmingly in our best interests to deliver on.”
“The Football League has regular dialogue with supporters groups on this and other relevant matters and we will always take into account any constructive input we receive on any subjects relating to our competitions,” the spokesman added.