Premier League matches could be free-to-air once season restarts

Jamie Vardy
The last Premier League game before shutdown was Leicester's 4-0 win over Aston Villa on 9 March

The Premier League is considering making some behind-closed-doors fixtures available free-to-air when the season restarts, the culture secretary has said.

Oliver Dowden has said he had been having "productive talks" with governing bodies from across British sport on restarting following the coronavirus shutdown.

He said the resumption hinged on passing the government's five tests as well as meeting social distancing guidelines.

Dowden said it was also important to send out a message that was "consistent" with that being given to the public.

Football is suspended indefinitely across most of Europe because of the continued spread of Covid-19.

Discussing how sports would be broadcast if held behind closed doors, as is expected to be the case initially, he told the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee: "I have said to the Premier League it wouldn't send the best signal if they were one of the first major sports to resume behind closed doors and the public at large couldn't have access to it."

He acknowledged that sports were "reliant on the revenue they derive" from broadcasting deals.

But he said that there were ways sport could have "elements of protecting revenue from broadcasting but also looking at ways of increasing access".

The Premier League was "considering" the issue, he said.

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid and Cheltenham Festival

Dowden defended the timing of the UK government's ban on mass gatherings, days after the Cheltenham Festival and Liverpool's Champions League match against Atletico Madrid.

"Throughout all of this we have based what we did on the scientific evidence we received both from Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and from the medical officers. I spoke to them twice and they met with the sporting bodies.

"The analysis was that in these events the risk is the people that are immediately in the row in front of you, the row behind you and either side. Now that risk is as great or as little as it would be if you were watching it in the pub down the road on a big screen, if you were going on public transport to get to the event.

"So the advice that we were given was that, to act consistently, it might be appropriate at a point in the progress of the disease to ban all those sorts of activities and indeed that is what we did.

"But there wasn't a case for singling out mass gatherings from those other things. That is the approach we took."

What stage are return to sport discussions at?

Dowden said his department has been having "constructive" and "quite productive" conversations with sports bodies.

Discussions have also taken place with the police, Public Health England and local government authorities about how sport might be able to return safely.

Dowden said that this was "preparatory work" to see what would work "in practice", rather than getting ready for any imminent developments.

On the public perception that the return of sport would produce, Dowden said: "I would just want to make sure that the signals we were sending from that were consistent with the signals that we were sending to the public more broadly.

"So I think it is sensible at this stage to have the engagement, to think through it, but I've been clear in all the conversations I've had that all of this is without prejudice so let's do the work and then we will make the decision at the appropriate point - clearly, number one, in accordance with the scientific evidence."

Proposed Newcastle takeover

John Nicolson MP asked Dowden if he would intervene in the proposed £300m takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi-backed consortium, citing concerns about "Saudi Arabia's record" regarding human rights.

Nicolson referred to the "Football Association's fit and proper person test", but the relevant test is the Premier League's owners and directors test.

It is understood that the Premier League is currently carrying out the necessary paperwork with regards to this test and the proposed takeover.

Speculating that Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which is behind the proposed takeover, were to pass that test, Nicolson asked: "In that eventuality would you be able to intervene and would you consider doing so?"

Dowden replied: "I think it is a matter for them to carry out. It is a matter for them. I am content that they should carry out that test."