Is live streaming of Mansfield Town matches on iFollow a good move or an own goal?

The legal streaming and live coverage of football matches at 3pm on a Saturday has always been sacrosanct.

Monday, 10th September 2018, 9:31 pm
Updated Monday, 10th September 2018, 10:27 pm
Mansfield Town's Danny Rose in action at Tranmere in the Stags' first match screened live to a domestic audience on iFollow. Picture: Howard Roe

Traditionally, it was thought that showing those matches in the UK would hit attendances at grounds and also spoil what has been seen as a ‘special’ time for football.

However, last weekend that preserve was broken as the Football League continued to dip its toe into the waters of the digital age.

Last year it introduced a new service for overseas fans - live coverage of Football League matches, including Saturday afternoons, via individual clubs’ iFollow service.

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Was the Stags attendance at the Checkatrade Trophy tie at Lincoln City hit by live streaming of the match? Picture by Howard Roe

Matches can be watched on digital devices - laptops, tablets and phones - and relayed to Smart TVs, with commentary from a local service.

Mansfield Town’s iFollow channel is very good with exclusive behind-the-scenes content, interviews, extended highlights and match replays for all subscribers. Match commentaries are provided by the knowledgeable and excellent Martin Shaw, well known to Stags fans.

The online broadcast channel was extended further this season. Now supporters in the UK can also watch midweek league and Checkatrade Trophy matches - at a cost of £10 per match, half of which goes to the clubs.

For the first time last weekend, because of the international break, Saturday afternoon matches were offered to digital viewers in the UK.

Of course, this did not affect the Stags because their League Two match was called off, but is it the thin end of the wedge? In other words, will live coverage of more Saturday afternoon matches eventually follow - and, if so, will that affect attendances, as many fear.

There were a few posts on social media over the weekend that one or two clubs had lower-than-expected attendances and questions were asked if it was related to the iFollow service.

I would think at this early stage that would be highly unlikely because many supporters are not even aware of the service.

But as more people become used to watching events and programmes on their laptops and accessing what was once the sole domain of television in so many different ways, if live coverage of matches is made easily accessible then fans will take up the offer - and perhaps some of them will be those who normally attend matches in person.

Live coverage of midweek evening matches in this way I can live with - particularly as it provides a much-needed service for away fans who, because of work commitments, struggle to travel long distances.

But I think the coverage of Saturday afternoon matches cannot be allowed to continue and the existing blackout on domestic coverage at that time should remain.

The experiment last weekend seems to have been introduced at the last minute with clubs not really consulted.

Accrington Stanley have not opted into the iFollow live coverage platform in the UK and chairman Andy Holt says, quite rightly, that it is a substantive change that needed debating.

Any future incursions into the Saturday afternoon must be put to the clubs first so that they can.

The Football League say the initiative is all about attracting new interest in the sport and at individual clubs, and providing a service to supporters.

The quality of the streaming is not bad, according to many Stags fans who used the platform for the match at Tranmere at the start of the season and again to watch the Checkatrade Trophy win at Lincoln last week.

It certainly provides value for money for subscribers - particularly those fans who live many miles away from One Call Stadium, for example, and for whom a home match is a costly affair because of travel.

In a modern world where clubs are vying for their fans’ time as well as their money, this could be a way of retaining a smaller income stream from a fan who would otherwise not be contributing any money into the club.

But will clubs be shooting themselves in the foot by giving supporters local to their grounds an excuse not to come to the ground, sample the atmosphere and live experience, and become hooked for life?

And, for example, was the live streaming last week one of the reasons for less than 300 Stags fans making the short journey to Lincoln - traditionally a ground where many hundreds of the amber and blue usually flock to on derby matchdays.

Or was that low attendance a reflection on the competition and the fact it was not a league match.

Overall it is an interesting debate and it looks as though the live streaming of midweek matches is here to stay - but I just hope it does not extend to Saturday afternoons.

The success of Sky’s Soccer Saturday and Jeff Stelling’s show has already eaten into attendances, so I hope the Football League does not continue to bow to the all-powerful broadcaster even further.