The battleground for the way Premier League football is consumed will be re-set on today as Amazon Prime begins streaming games for the first time since agreeing a near-€100m to show 20 matches a season.
The global online retailer is a new arrival in the football broadcast market and begins its offering with tonight’s matches between Crystal Palace plus Bournemouth and Burnley against Manchester City.
It will also simultaneously show all of Wednesday’s matches, including Manchester United’s reunion with Jose Mourinho, now manager of Tottenham — a fixture which could test bandwidth capability in the UK given the potential size of its audience.
With the likes of Facebook watching developments closely, and with Amazon clearly having the financial ability to invest far more heavily in future, it’s a landmark moment which could lead to far greater choice for online football fans in future.
Whether that is a good thing depends very much on your point of view, and it’s a debate that is likely to be heated and passionate over the coming months.
The principle that television rights are sold collectively has been a cornerstone of English football since the Premier League was formed in 1992 and the sharing of wealth is credited with creating the brand we see today — with a competitive division in which, despite the power of the Big Four, anyone can beat anyone on the right day.
But how long can the Premier League hold on to those values once it bows to what seems an inevitable future of every game being available to stream rather than only available on pay-per-view giants such as Sky?
Under those circumstances, it would be almost impossible to ignore the fact that Manchester United and Liverpool’s games were streamed by a far bigger audience than their rivals — and to justify paying all 20 Premier League teams the same share of broadcasting revenue.
It’s different in the United States, of course.
Most American sports already offer digital season passes and there is certainly no 3pm blackout — a policy favoured in England to encourage high attendances and protect lower-division teams who play at the same time.
It seems inevitable that markets will drive change if Amazon’s experiment proves successful — and the global retailer has even offered a 30-day free trial to entice football fans to sign up in time for Christmas and the St Stephen’s Day fixtures.
So, how big a moment is this for football?
Given that Amazon Prime’s Premier League coverage will not be available in Ireland (the rights here were brought by Premier Sport instead) it’s not exactly a landmark moment in the Republic; but the growing popularity of streamed content is potentially a game-changer in the long term.
It seems a long time ago when only one game was available to watch on free-to-air television every week and millions of people waited patiently for highlights to see their team’s goals for the first time.
Now, however, we are very close to reaching the other extreme — a world in which every Premier League game is available on live stream at the same time without even the need for an expensive monthly contract (or a television, for that matter).
The Football League already allows Sky to live-stream every Championship midweek game in the UK, whilst anyone with a VPN can normally find a way to — unofficially — watch pretty much any match they want from all around the world.
Amazon Prime’s entry into the market confirms football’s television future is online, with a potential audience which will far eclipse the numbers that watch on Sky in the UK and even the millions who tune into the BBC’s Match of the Day.
When you consider Amazon Prime has 103m members globally, paying less than €100 a year for the privilege, and also access to another 100m shoppers who use the website but don’t subscribe, then the potential audience is astonishing.
What are the advantages for football fans?
The obvious answer here is choice. There’s a possibility in future that supporters will be able to stream their team’s match whenever and wherever they are playing — and watch it on the move.
They will never need to miss a game.
They will also, potentially, be able to do so far more cheaply than at present. Currently, in the UK, fans need a subscription to Sky, BT and now Amazon Prime to watch every live game shown, and still aren’t guaranteed their favourite team will be featured. If Sky’s grip on broadcast rights is broken, online providers could offer the service at a far lower price.
What are the disadvantages?
The culture of English football is at stake here and, for some people, even its soul.
It continues a move away from valuing the supporter in the ground in favour of the one on the sofa. So, fans fear it could to lead to lower attendances, poor atmospheres, unusual kick-off times and less competitive matches if bigger clubs are ultimately given a larger slice of television revenue.
Liverpool fans have already complained bitterly about their St Stephen’s Day game at Leicester being moved to 8pm — on a day when trains and other public transport are not available.
Manchester United’s game against Newcastle starts at 5.30pm the same day, whilst Brighton fans must find a way of getting to Tottenham for a 12.30pm kick-off.
It’s clear that little thought has gone into how Amazon’s fixture times affect away supporters.
Even more of a concern, however, is the direction of travel.
If all fixtures are to be streamed simultaneously in future, what does that mean for football as a whole?
If fans only ever watch their own team, will there still be that shared love of a sport in which, at present, every supporter takes an interest in every aspect of the league and shares their views on it?
What will happen to the tradition of watching big matches together with friends, or of young boys being able to name every player in the Bournemouth team even though they support Liverpool?
Progress, innovation and technology are welcome and inevitable in football — VAR has proved that. But protecting what makes the sport special, competitive, and popular should also be high on the agenda.
Football fans everywhere will be watching closely (broadband speed permitted, of course) to see where this all leads us.
While this week’s round of Premier League fixtures is the first to be screened on Amazon Prime in the UK, Irish Amazon Prime subscribers won’t be able to view the games on the service.
Instead Premier Sports has acquired the rights in the Republic of Ireland.
The Irish broadcaster will show all 10 matches across Premier Sport 1 and 2 and via their red button.
Premier Sports is available in Ireland via the Sky platform as part of a Sports Extra add-on to the standard Sky Sports package.
For this series of games, Premier Sport has reassembled the iconic RTÉ football panel of Liam Brady, Eamon Dunphy, and John Giles, with Ivan Yates as anchor.
There will be a second panel with Eoin McDevitt as host and Kenny Cunningham and Christ Sutton as panelists. This week’s line-up includes Burnley v Man City on Premier 1 tonight, with Crystal Palace v Bournemouth on Premier Sports 2.
Tomorrow, the main Premier Sports 1 game is the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton. On Premier Sports 2, there is Jose Mourinho’s much-anticipated return to Old Trafford as his Tottenham side take on Manchester United.
On the red button, there are the fixtures between Leicester and Watford, Wolves and West Ham, and Chelsea and Aston Villa.
On Thursday, Arsenal v Brighton is live on Premier Sports 1, with Sheffield United v Newcastle on Premier Sports 2.