Portsmouth leading fears over iFollow’s long-term destruction of Football League crowds

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The exploratory push has consisted of two tentative steps – yet Mark Catlin is already fearing brutal long-term repercussions.

For the armchair audience, iFollow’s ambitious enhancement drive represents welcome development of a product possessing undoubted potential.

Mark Catlin fears fan presence could be cut at Fratton Park in the long-term. Picture: Joe Pepler

Mark Catlin fears fan presence could be cut at Fratton Park in the long-term. Picture: Joe Pepler

Previously confined to football audiences located outside the UK and Ireland, the Football League have facilitated a ramping up of the concept during the current campaign.

Last weekend marked a second iFollow trial involving live streaming of matches scheduled for 3pm on a Saturday.

Notably, accessibility has also been opened up to supporters in this country.

Presently, Uefa’s Article 48 prohibits the broadcasting of live football between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday. In addition, they must not fall on Bank Holidays and shouldn’t have been picked by either Sky Sports or Pitch International.

However, it is permitted should club fixtures land on an international weekend.

As a consequence, September’s Pompey clash with Shrewsbury and last weekend’s trip to AFC Wimbledon were both televised, with ustomers asked to pay £10 each for the privilege.

The product has undeniably been well-received, with the Blues totalling around nine times as many domestic viewers over four League One matches and two Checkatrade Trophy games broadcast by iFollow this season compared to overseas figures.

Priced at double the £5 charged to those watching from abroad, embracing a home audience is clearly highly profitable.

Yet, while in the short term iFollow’s preferred route delivers increased riches to its Football League members, Pompey chief executive Catlin is concerned for the future effect on stadium attendances.

He said: ‘It’s irrelevant what these trials show because they cannot demonstrate comprehensively the long-term damage this idea will do to football in general.

‘We are very much a club driven by passionate fan support and I don’t want anything that can potentially affect the atmosphere at Fratton Park – or even away supporters.

‘Just say, using a round figure, we receive £10,000 for a packed Fratton Park. Alternatively, you can generate £20,000 with no-one at Fratton Park and everyone at home watching it on the internet.

‘We would rather receive the £10,000 and have a full Fratton Park and that experience, because that’s what Pompey is about.

‘My frustration – and on behalf of Portsmouth Football Club – is that we as a club, and football in general, have worked so hard to grow the fan base and attract fans to come and experience a live, atmospheric, passionate game. Why do we want to mess with that?

‘With attendances generally going up, why do we suddenly become complacent and believe the same amount of people will come when you gain extra people watching it at home? How can that be the case?

‘This is going to be a long-term issue, it won’t be damaging in the short term and that’s my whole point with the current trials. It won’t affect anything in the short term because a lot of people won’t get to grips with it.

‘Yet beyond that, more and more people will get used to not attending games, they break the habit.

‘Once you have broken that habit and it's a cold January or February day and you’re thinking 50/50 about attending, then you’ll see a difference – and I would argue it’s more damaging to smaller clubs because they will lose the away support.

‘For example, say 2,000 Pompey fans usually travel to Accrington but it’s an international weekend and iFollow is available. So instead 500 travel up, with he remaining 1,500 at home watching the live stream.

‘For many clubs, the visit of Pompey is a big payday, yet you’re potentially taking away some of that income stream.

‘Our viewpoints are in tune with a lot of other clubs, although I don’t want to be too critical of the EFL. As an umbrella organisation, we are innovative and always looking at ways to generate extra revenue for member clubs.

‘But even if this was to generate extra revenue, it goes against our core principles.’

In league terms, aside from the two Saturday trial matches, Pompey midweek trips to Bristol Rovers and Coventry have been broadcast by iFollow to home and abroad audiences this season.

As it stands, Bristol Rovers reaped the biggest figure, with the Saturday 3pm Shrewsbury fixture attracting comfortably the lowest.

In addition, both of the Blues’ Checkatrade Trophy matches have been streamed, albeit generating figures barely above those for an average, internationally streamed-only league game.

Yet while Catlin has strong concerns – there are aspects of iFollow’s broadcast blueprint he welcomes.

The club’s chief executive added: ‘What we would like to see explored is if the game’s a sell-out during the international break.

‘We wouldn't want to deprive fans of the opportunity to see the match, so would consider the possibility of live streaming.

‘Broadcasting Saturday 3pm matches which are sold out is something we are quite happy to explore and would like to see agreement reached.

‘Taking our match at AFC Wimbledon as an example. I don’t know the figures yet, but let’s assume somewhere in the region of 1,500-2,000 watched the game via the stream. Why would you want to deprive fans of having that opportunity?

‘It’s a sell-out, no more tickets are available, so it makes sense to broadcast it. They wouldn’t see the game otherwise.

‘In addition, we are quite open minded to Tuesday night games streamed live because we don’t want to penalise fans.

‘I know from my own experience, my mum would never let me go to a Tuesday evening match. I was aged 10 or 11 and would watch West Ham everywhere, but on Tuesday nights there was school the next day.

‘It’s not just youngsters, you have parents who work and cannot make the away games, so we are more open minded to that.

‘It’s different at 3pm on a Saturday. That is the time the majority of fans are used to going to watch a game.’

The Football League failed to respond to The News’ request for an interview on the subject of iFollow.

In the meantime, the footballing body will next month meet to scrutinise the outcome of the two recent trials.

Catlin added: ‘The Uefa Article 48 is something which is sacrosanct and protected. However, member associations can opt out.

‘Following the second trial, it is now going to be re-evaluated by the EFL in November. However, we are just one of 72 clubs, we can voice our opinion strongly on specific issues such as this, but ultimately are governed by the majority.

‘I think we have made our stance clear, both publicly and privately.

‘Our priority has to be to get people into games – and experience football in the flesh.’