Sports

Did Iranian TV Cancel the English Premier League Over Footballers' Rainbow Armbands?

August 8, 2022
Payam Younesipour
3 min read
Last Friday team captains with English Premier League clubs stepped out onto the pitch wearing rainbow-colored armbands in a show of support for the LGBT+ community
Last Friday team captains with English Premier League clubs stepped out onto the pitch wearing rainbow-colored armbands in a show of support for the LGBT+ community
The gesture of solidarity has been the subject of ire in Tehran sporting circles for the past half-decade
The gesture of solidarity has been the subject of ire in Tehran sporting circles for the past half-decade
Two games were not aired on Friday and Saturday at a potential cost of close to $4m to the IRIB
Two games were not aired on Friday and Saturday at a potential cost of close to $4m to the IRIB

Despite earlier promises to the contrary, English Premier League football matches were not shown on Iranian TV this weekend due to a last-minute decision by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

Fans waiting to watch Fulham v Liverpool on Friday, or Manchester United v Brighton on Saturday, were left staring at alternative coverage on the IRIB’s TV3 and Varzesh (Sports) channels, with no reason given for the change.

Rumors circulated on social media that the IRIB’s management had decided to take a stand over Ali Rezvani, an infamous “interrogator-journalist” and IRIB sports presenter, being on the sanctions list of the British parliament (he isn’t – yet). This, though, was mostly a joke.

One more plausible idea was that IRIB executives decided to pull the plug on airing matches because of the English footballers’ open support for the LGBT+ community on the pitch. The broadcaster would never concede as much publicly, but there is precedent for this – and if so, it will have been a very expensive political hill to die on indeed.

 

 

A History of Intolerance

At the start of the season last week, team captains with English Premier League clubs stepped out onto the pitch again wearing rainbow-colored armbands in a show of support for the LGBT+ community.

For years now players in the Premier League have tacitly stood up for LGBT+ rights, and sought to make LGBT+ players and members of the football community feel welcome, by taking part in Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign.

Tehran took exception to this; in 2017 the conservative Young Journalists Club (YJC) reported the IRIB had decided not to broadcast a week of English Premier League competitions because of rainbow-colored shoelaces worn by players and referees that week. These simple adornments were described by the YJC as “shameful viruses” that “pollute the spirit of football”.

This stance does not appear to have softened with time in a country where homosexuality is still a capital offence. In November 2021 the sports website Tarafdari published a picture of rainbow armbands at Manchester United, reporting that the IRIB would again not be broadcasting Premier League games because of it.  “It’s a pity,” the reporter wrote. “We had a lot of cool football this week.”

 

 

How Much Does the IRIB Make from European Football?

In December 2020, IranWire was given access to internal documents that, among other things, detailed the IRIB’s expected revenue from TV commercials, including the rates for 36-second slots on channels 1, 2, 3 and 5, as well as the entertainment network iFilm.

The highest rate for a 36-second commercial was 580.77 million tomans ($22,870 at the 2020 open market exchange rate), for a slot during the popular live TV show We Are Returning Home on IRIB’s TV5.

But during high-level European League football matches – such as the League finals or El Clásico on TV3, prospective advertisers were afforded just 18 seconds each for 453.438 million tomans ($17,856), making this the single most expensive advertising slot on Iranian TV.

The live broadcast of each European game includes more than 40 minutes of commercials. Assuming those rates have stayed the same since 2020, had the two games on August 6 and 7 been aired as planned with all the slots filled, the IRIB could have made more than 121 billion tomans ($3.8m at today’s exchange rate).

 

 

Stealing Broadcasts

The very next month, in January 2020, IranWire saw a letter penned by Ali Foroughi, the head of TV3, that revealed management at the IRIB had decided to “encode” live broadcasts of international football competitions.

In the IRIB’s jargon, “encode” means to make a specific program unavailable on satellite frequencies. For instance, if a program that aired on TV3 from 8pm to 10pm is “encoded”, anyone watching it via satellite will see only a scrambled picture, while those who use home antennae should not encounter problems.  

This is because the IRIB is stealing broadcasts of European and other global football competitions. It has aired matches without permission or paying for the rights for years, making a small fortune in the process.

Recently, however, Iran has lost the chance to host a number of international football games because the thefts were exposed. In the circumstances, whether Iran’s public broadcaster can still afford to boycott matches over some rainbow-colored accessories, or will be able to for much longer, is unclear.

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