FOOTBALL’s 3pm ‘blackout’ is still necessary to protect the game, says Oxford United’s managing director.

The rule stops Premier League, English Football League or Emirates FA Cup matches being broadcast or streamed live in the UK between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday.

There has been fierce debate in recent days over whether it should be scrapped, triggered by the prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo making his Manchester United return at 3pm on Saturday against Newcastle United.

The rule was created in the 1960s to protect attendances lower down the football pyramid and Niall McWilliams reckons that is still an important factor.

“My inclination from a personal perspective is it’s still a good idea,” United’s MD said.

“What I wouldn’t want to see is a reduction in crowds because people feel they can watch in their house.

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“For me, nothing beats a live football match with the colour, the excitement, the noise, the ups and downs.

“You get that much more if you’re at the game.”

McWilliams added: “There’s an argument to say it’s still protecting attendances in Leagues One and Two.

“If people can stream, then sometimes they’ll do that rather than go to the actual game.

“The other argument is that against Wimbledon we sold out (the away end) and could have sold more (iFollow) match passes for people to stream it.”

Plymouth Argyle owner Simon Hallett said earlier this week that fans should be allowed to stream Saturday 3pm kick-offs.

The Sky Bet League One side are one of a growing number of clubs to set-up an in-house channel and McWilliams revealed it is something United are considering, although nothing is imminent.

He said: “We’re certainly looking at it.

"We’ll always consider anything that would have a positive impact on the club and the fanbase.”

The 'blackout' was temporarily removed last season, when the coronavirus pandemic forced matches behind closed doors.

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U’s fans could pay £10 to stream games on the club’s iFollow service, which is no longer possible in the UK - except for the Papa John's Trophy.

McWilliams said: “We needed the revenue stream at the time.

“Significant funding came in, but for me the bigger picture is to protect the game and to do that you need people watching live.

“If you had smaller crowds at Premier League games, or no crowds at all, people switch off.”