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Sky Sports’ £935m deal will replace iFollow in UK next season – but will everyone benefit?



From humble beginnings of just one solitary camera providing rather rudimentary coverage for overseas fans to raising vital income to help clubs negotiate a pandemic that saw stadium gates locked for more than a year, streaming service iFollow has come a long way.

But a setup born initially out of a desire from the English Football League (EFL) to end the practice of broadcasters having to physically bike tapes of goals to the studio for that night’s highlights show will end its life — at least domestically — this weekend when the curtain comes down on the Championship regular season.

From August, Sky Sports will replace both iFollow and the streaming services of those clubs who had opted out of the league’s central platform as the only place for UK-based fans to watch their team live.

As part of the new five-year £935million ($1.17bn) deal that starts in 2024-25, a record 1,059 matches will be broadcast live per season. All Carabao Cup and Bristol Street Motors Trophy ties are included, along with 328 games from the Championship and 248 apiece from League One and League Two. All 15 play-off games will still be shown live.

Each weekend will have 10 live matches, half of which will be from the Championship. These will be screened outside the 2.45pm to 5.15pm period on a Saturday that remains blocked under Article 48 of UEFA’s statutes, whereby member nations can select a two-and-a-half-hour weekend slot that sees live football banned from broadcast.

All play-off games will still be broadcast under the deal (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

This means many games available on Sky Sports will be midweek fixtures, a bit like how the red button has worked in recent years on the satellite channel for Championship games played on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

Overseas fans will be unaffected by the changes. The international streaming services will continue next season, with 1,698 matches to be shown live.

The shift from iFollow and individual club streaming services on the domestic front to a collective agreement with Sky helped the EFL broker a 50 per cent increase in the value of TV rights. This will consist of £895million in guaranteed payments, plus £40m in marketing benefits.

“We are really excited to have signed another five-year deal with Sky — an innovative deal — that shows the strength of the EFL and Sky’s faith,” said EFL chairman Rick Parry when the agreement was announced. “It is very much onwards and upwards and an exciting time from our point of view.”

But what does this change mean for supporters? And is it good news all-round for the clubs?

iFollow launched to overseas fans in 2017 and the domestic market a year later, but the setup had started to be put in place a few years earlier.

“There was a time when the EFL highlights show on a Saturday evening relied on a system that saw people on bikes collecting tapes (from the various stadiums) and running them to different TV studios,” explains Shaun Harvey, the EFL chief executive for six years between 2013 and 2019.

“The EFL needed to get away from that and towards a system where the pictures were broadcast directly to a central source. The advent of fibre networks and everything else made it possible and our first ambition was to take advantage of this.”

As technology changed, so did the thinking of clubs on the lookout to increase revenue streams.

“The EFL had historically sold its rights lock, stock and barrel to one broadcaster or agency,” adds Harvey. “In return, an amount of money was paid and if the rights weren’t used, they weren’t used.

“They were just warehoused, meaning no one got to use them. The principle of iFollow was about using the footage for overseas markets from games that had been warehoused to serve ex-pat communities.

“It was done purely because these people were not coming to the game, so it was all incremental revenue. That was the genesis of iFollow, using the technology already in place.

“Once that had got off the ground, we had discussions with Sky, whereby they agreed that games could be streamed domestically outside Article 48 if they weren’t carrying it live. Effectively, midweek games.

“Fairly quickly, this meant we arrived in a situation where you could stream domestically, barring Article 48, and internationally.”

Wrexham have benefitted from the existence of iFollow overseas (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

As expected with such an innovative service, the quality varied enormously in the early days. Some clubs opted from the start to finance multi-camera operations, including replays. Others, even some clubs in the Championship, went for just one camera on halfway.

Now, all second-tier games must be filmed by a minimum of four cameras and feature local commentary, while League One and League Two, plus the EFL Trophy, can operate with just one. Many, though, employ more.

The value of iFollow and the various individual club streaming services — in the 2023-24 season, a total of 32 clubs, including former Premier League duo Derby County and Leeds United, have used their own platform rather than the EFL’s central service — came to the fore when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020.

After an initial shutdown lasting three and a half months, the Championship resumed in June. League One and League Two curtailed their 2019-20 campaigns but were up and running again by the following September. With the gates locked, streaming was the only way for supporters to watch their teams.

“iFollow was a lifeline for clubs when Covid came along,” says Nigel Clibbens, chief executive of Carlisle United. “Not just in terms of bringing in vital revenue but also giving fans a way to stay in touch with their clubs when unable to attend matches in person.”

With a much bigger audience turned on to streaming during the pandemic, this has become an increasingly important income stream. Under the terms of the soon-to-expire TV deal, the EFL estimated annual revenue for the 72 member clubs stands at £119million, plus around £7m in streaming income.

From next season, there will be an increase in annual income from TV to £180million, plus £7m from domestic streaming and £7m international.

Sources who asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to speak for this article insist how exactly this will be broken down between the clubs is yet to be finalised by the EFL, other than the current weighting system that ensures the lion’s share goes to the Championship as the primary drivers of the rights value will remain in place.

But, when the new Sky Sports deal was first announced a year ago, the EFL forecasted those in the second tier would be approximately 46 per cent better off compared to 25 per cent in the bottom two divisions.

One club official, speaking to The Athletic on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships, estimates the increase in League One will work out at £450,000 per club and maybe a little over half that in League Two.

Once ratified, the hope is next season’s increases will more than make up for the loss of streaming income from the domestic market. Carlisle, for example, earned £150,000 from iFollow in 2022-23 and expect to bank a slightly higher amount this time around, even though the club finished bottom of League One.

Bradford City, however, expect to be out of pocket under the new arrangement. In their last set of published accounts for 2022-23, the League Two club earned £300,000 from iFollow.

This year’s figure is set to be a little lower, mainly because City could broadcast more fixtures via iFollow last season due to the Saturday 3pm blackout being suspended during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“We will be worse off once iFollow dies domestically,” says Bradford chief executive Ryan Sparks about next season’s changes. “And especially when compared to some of our rivals.

“I won’t name individual clubs, but some have been earning, say, £70,000 per year from iFollow. They will get a big swing in their favour. Compared to ourselves, that swing will be even bigger.

“Having said that, we didn’t vote with ourselves as a League Two club in mind. We voted for the future. If we were in League One or especially the Championship, we would be significantly richer under the new deal.

Sparks says the change will not benefit Bradford City initially (George Wood/Getty Images)

“Had we voted against it, we’d probably have been the only club to do so. First, I didn’t want to be that guy. But, more importantly, what would it have said about our ambition if we’d voted against it?”

Bradford, like Carlisle, intend to launch their own TV station in time for next season. Both hope to tap into the growing international market, especially Carlisle. Carlisle were bought late last year by the Piatak family from Jacksonville, Florida.

Chief executive Clibbens says: “From a low base, we are seeing an increase. Especially in the Florida area. We are seeing people start to subscribe because there is this club in the UK with a connection to their community.”

The domestic rights being sold collectively to Sky for a bigger sum does seem to alleviate some of the concerns expressed by smaller clubs in the past.

In 2022, Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt penned an open letter to the EFL to protest at how the team selling the matchday passes for iFollow could keep all the money, even when the game was played in the opposition’s stadium. Holt wanted the same system as is in operation over physical matchday tickets, effectively the home club banking the money.

“I’d say this is a great deal for most clubs,” adds Clibbens. “At Carlisle, we will lose significant income from iFollow and have the increased costs of setting up our own operation.

“But the way the media landscape is going and how fans are likely to want more and more of their desired content… if you don’t do this then you’re going to be left behind.”

Where the bigger clubs will continue to prosper is in the international market. Holt, in a post on X, revealed recently how one club is expected to bank £1.2million from international streaming alone in 2023-24.

At the other end of the scale, another club is set to earn just £3,564. The average revenue across the league from international streaming is forecast to be £81,450.

Supporters have every right to be wary about more games being shown live, especially as Article 48 means all manner of kick-offs across the weekend are likely.

Where fans will benefit, however, is longer notice periods for matches moved from the traditional Saturday afternoon slot. Before a ball is kicked next season, all EFL matches selected for broadcast up to the FA Cup third round weekend in January will be known.

This should help reduce costs for matchgoing fans, with train and hotel prices much cheaper when booked two or three months in advance. Previously, games could be moved at five weeks’ notice, or sometimes even less. How exactly the notice period from the third-round weekend onwards will operate next season is unclear.

The EFL is also promising greater parity in the number of times clubs are selected for TV coverage, which should be good news for match-going Leeds fans if they miss out on promotion. This season, Daniel Farke’s side have been shown live on Sky 33 times, including the final-day game against Southampton.

Leeds will feature live on Sky Sports 33 times this season (Ed Sykes/Getty Images)

From August, all opening and final day EFL fixtures will be shown live by Sky, along with all Bank Holidays, including Easter, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Likewise, any League One and League Two matches played during the international breaks.

“The new setup will be a better service for supporters,” says Bradford chief executive Sparks. “There will be significantly more games on the main channel and not just the two or three we get in League Two each year.

“My only disappointment with the new agreement is I don’t see the value of the 3pm blackout. We could have relaxed that and allowed clubs to stream their 3pm games that weren’t selected by Sky.

“Some clubs in our division see the areas of ticket sales and streaming as fighting each other, but I just don’t get it. Part of the problem is there are a lot of people in the game who rather subjectively talk about how streaming leads to fewer fans in the stadium.

“I’ve never seen that as the case and our accounts show that ticketing and streaming can grow together. That’s the only part of the deal that doesn’t add up. We talk about the new deal providing more access and more exposure, but then we have this strange anomaly.

“Whereas people in other countries can watch our games, they can’t here. In the world we live in, that just doesn’t make sense.”

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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