Why Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United return won't be shown on live TV in the UK

As the football world works through the remainder of the first international break of the season, many fans are already looking forward to the weekend as the Premier League prepares for what might be Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United.

Over a decade since he departed, Ronaldo is back and eligible to make his second United debut as they prepare to face Newcastle at Old Trafford on Saturday.

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Fresh from becoming the all-time top goal scorer in men's internationals last Wednesday, Ronaldo left the Portugal squad and flew into the U.K. on Friday. After undergoing his mandatory five-day quarantine period, on Tuesday he rocked up at United's Carrington training ground, where he will only have time to squeeze in a couple of training sessions with his new/old club before their next game.

However, sources have told ESPN's Rob Dawson that United remain hopeful the 36-year-old will be fit and ready to play at least some part despite completing his blockbuster transfer from Juventus just eight days ago.

The bad news for those in the UK is that the Newcastle match won't be broadcast live on television there, denying millions of fans the chance to witness him play in the United No. 7 shirt for the first time since 2009.

With the weekend's fixtures to be shown live by British broadcasters selected weeks ago, it is too late to move the Man United-Newcastle game from its 3 p.m. kick-off time, meaning it can't be broadcast live in the U.K. This is due to a stipulation that has stood in place in the U.K. for well over 40 years: the "3 p.m. blackout," as it has become known.

The rule states that no game of any kind, be that Premier League, Championship, or even Bundesliga or LaLiga, can be broadcast live on British television on a Saturday between 2.45 p.m. and 5.15 p.m.. The rule originally excluded the FA Cup final, but since 2012 that showpiece at Wembley has kicked off at 5:15 p.m..

The rule has been in place since the 1960s, when it was originally proposed by Burnley chairman Bob Lord who argued that televising traditional 3 p.m. Saturday kick-offs would negatively affect match-going audiences throughout the English football pyramid -- from the top tier of the professional game down to non-league amateur matches. Football has been broadcast on British television since 1938, though the airing of regular live matches didn't become a fixture in the schedules until the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Lord was adamant that showing 3 p.m. kick-offs on television would "damage and undermine" stadium attendances by enticing supporters to stay in and watch the game at home. He even went as far as banning BBC cameras from showing live games at Turf Moor for five years to prevent this from happening. An outspoken opponent of televised football in general, Lord gradually convinced his fellow Football League chairmen that showing 3 p.m. kick-offs would decimate their precious matchday revenue streams and sure enough, it was adopted nationwide shortly thereafter. The rule has been observed ever since and is the reason why the final day of the Premier League season is always scheduled on a Sunday, thus allowing all 10 matches to take place simultaneously at 3 p.m..

The broadcast ban was suspended last year as part of the Premier League's "Project Restart" to allow fans barred from stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic to watch matches being played behind closed doors, though it has since been reinstated for the 2021-22 season as fans have returned to games.

While all radio coverage is exempt, the rule does extend to all foreign matches shown live on U.K. television, with many channels having to start their coverage of some Spanish and Italian games (for example) with the first portion of the match already elapsed.

What began in the 1960s as an agreement between Football League chairmen is now effectively part of UEFA's rules, with Article 48 of Europe's governing body's statutes stating that any member association can designate a two-and-a-half-hour slot on a Saturday or Sunday during which televised transmission of football is prohibited.

The rule is observed in England not to protect attendances in the Premier League but those throughout the other levels of the English football pyramid -- the deepest league system in Europe in terms of matchday attendances.

It also isn't necessarily in place to dissuade a season-ticket holder of a lower league club from attending their game in favour of watching a glitzy Premier League game on television. It's to encourage casual fans to keep the turnstiles ticking at smaller clubs, thus providing much-needed footfall and walk-up revenue.

Many of these lower-league clubs rely heavily on this Saturday 3 p.m. income to stay in business.

Of course, there's no real way of knowing if rescinding the rule would substantially damage attendances and takings and send the entire pyramid into disarray without doing so. Perhaps fans would still rather stand in the howling wind and lashing rain while watching their local clubs at 3 p.m. on a Saturday, despite a Premier League game being shown on television, but the risk of the pyramid collapsing from the bottom up is simply too great.

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You might be wondering why other top leagues in Europe and around the world don't observe a similar rule and this is simply because none of them view one specific kick-off slot with the same level of reverence, through the whole league system, as much as English/British football does Saturday at 3 p.m. In fact, due to the wider dispersal of kick-off times in other big leagues such as LaLiga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany) and Serie A (Italy), they don't even qualify to put a broadcast ban in place.

As per UEFA statutes, 50% of games in the top two divisions must kick off simultaneously in order for a 2.5-hour broadcast ban to be established. In England and Scotland this is the case (73% and 90% respectively) though over in Germany that figure is as low as 28%. In Italy it's just 15%, while in Spain there are no simultaneous LaLiga kick-offs at all to avoid clustering.

The 3 p.m. Saturday kick-off has been part of the fabric of English football since the 19th century, as traditionally working people across the country would flood out of the factories following a morning shift and straight into football grounds. The reality of the situation is that no other league does it quite the same way.

So there you have it: the reason why the domestic fans of Manchester United won't be able to watch Ronaldo's return is one that has its roots at the very beginnings of league football in England, and is there to protect its future.