Tag Archives: TV

What is behind the great Premier League switch-off?

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Last Sunday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t watch any football.

I wasn’t busy, it wasn’t an international break, and there wasn’t another major sporting event that I wanted to watch between 2pm and 6pm. Instead, I looked at the two Premier League games that were being shown by Sky Sports — Middlesbrough vs Watford, followed by Southampton vs Burnley — and thought: “Nah, I’ll pass.”

The uninspiring choice of Sunday games came at an awkward moment for Sky, following a report by the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale that viewing figures were down 19 percent year-on-year. The broadcaster will have pinned hopes on Monday’s game between Liverpool and Manchester United, the clubs with the two biggest fanbases, to quell talk that the Premier League bubble is starting to burst.

So, how real is the dip in Premier League audiences? And what are the factors that could be behind Sky’s audience dropping so dramatically?

First, it should be noted that the season is still young, and normally viewing figures increase as the evenings draw in, particularly in the Sunday 4pm and Saturday 5.30pm slots. But, as someone who tracks audience figures for Spurs matches out of personal interest, there are signs that the numbers tuning in are indeed low.

The most-watched Premier League game so far this season (excluding Liverpool v Man Utd, which isn’t publicly available yet), by BARB’s “average audience” measurement, was the Manchester derby on September 10. This drew 1.18 million in the lunchtime Saturday kick off. The equivalent game last season, a Sunday 2pm kick-off, drew 1.98 million. The reverse fixture in March, in the Sunday 4pm slot, drew 1.82 million.

After the Manchester derby, by my count, the second most-watched match was Spurs vs Manchester City on October 2, which averaged 1.06 million viewers in the Sunday 2pm slot. This just pipped Chelsea vs Liverpool, a Friday night offering that averaged 1.04m.

While 1.06m is more than respectable for Spurs v Man City, it is below the average for televised Spurs matches last season, which was 1.13 million. When Spurs travelled to Manchester City in February last season, that drew 1.78m in the prime Sunday 4pm slot.

One area in particular where Sky is apparently hurting is the Sunday 4pm slot, normally the prime selection of the week. The last four matches — Swansea v Chelsea, Spurs v Sunderland, West Ham v Bournemouth and Burnley v Arsenal — all failed to crack the 1 million mark. In the equivalent fixture block last season, these matches averaged over 1 million.

(BARB’s average audience measure isn’t perfect, and the broadcasters prefer to refer to the “peak” audience figure. However, the average audience is the only one that is made public, and it serves a purpose of enabling comparisons. More explanation in my previous piece on the subject.)

So, what could be behind it?

There have been some interesting explanations raised, from the tedious football being played by some of the Premier League’s lesser lights, to piracy, cost of subscriptions and crap coverage.

These explanations are all, no doubt, true to an extent.

I watched Burnley v Watford a few weeks ago, or rather started watching it and switched off and watched a couple of old episodes of Elementary for the third time instead. The standard was abysmal, but not entertainingly so, and anything was better than watching that.

Piracy continues to advance in terms of quality and accessibility, through streaming services like Kodi and other new technology. I subscribe to both Sky Sports and BT Sport, but last Saturday at 3pm I was forced to find a stream to watch Spurs. I have zero sympathy with the Premier League (and yes, there are a number of parties that would need to agree to a change) on this score. In 2016, there is simply no justification for viewers in the UK not getting the same choice as fans everywhere else in the world. It borders on cruelty and has created a market for piracy.

When the pirated offering is better — or at least, more comprehensive — than the paid offering, it’s going to mean less people pay. How you measure this, however, I don’t know — Sky’s revenues continue to climb, but subscriber growth is growing, per the last quarterly report.

Cost is undoubtedly a factor too, especially given broader economic trends that have seen a divergence in incomes both geographically and generationally. Football on TV is incredibly expensive now. A full subscription to BT and Sky will cost over £1,000 for a household, and this doesn’t even get you 2/3 of the matches. It doesn’t feel like great value now.

I’d add here, an argument gets made that we are experiencing “overkill” due to too much football on UK TV — personally I think it is the opposite, with too many fan bases getting too small a selection of games, meaning limited incentive to subscribe. Leicester, for example, were only shown eight times in total in the season before their miraculous title-winning campaign — hardly a huge incentive to subscribe to both Sky and BT. This season, with many more Premier League games and Champions League football, it is much better value for a Leicester City fan, and you can be sure that Leicester’s audiences have crept up somewhat as a result.

Rising prices, and advances in illegal streaming, may have led to a reduction among rated audiences. But it’s impossible to know how many, and it’s not like streaming sites have only sprung up this season. Also, while it seems like many, many people must be doing this if you judge by Twitter, it’s useful to remember that Twitter is a small sample and generally a terrible reflection of reality.

As for punditry, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. While Jamie Redknapp and Thierry Henry are dreadful, Sky still boast three of the best of the business in Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness. Sky’s coverage certainly hasn’t gotten worse compared to last year. But either way, it is fairly inconsequential — most fans tune in for the game, not the talking.

However, there are also some other explanations for Sky’s poor ratings that are worth a mention.

First, swapping their Saturday slot with BT was always going to be bad for Sky’s audience figures.

The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off routinely draws a low audience, as people have, well, life to be getting on with at that time of a weekend, whereas by 5.30pm you are far more likely to be ready to put your feet up and watch a game. The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off, however, is excellent for fans in Asia, so the Premier League will still want its big guns in that slot even if it doesn’t suit Sky.

Second, the Premier League is missing some “big” clubs this season, and this is harming ratings.

When Aston Villa played Newcastle last month, an average of more than 500,000 tuned in — that is the first time that I’ve seen a Championship match on BARB’s Top 30 weekly ranking.

The 2016/17 Premier League must feature the smallest number of “big” clubs of any edition to date.

That’s not to say the likes of Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford don’t deserve to be there, while Leeds, Villa and Newcastle should automatically be in the top flight in some Charlie Stillitano-inspired ratings stitch-up. But when you have big fanbases out of the top flight and not engaged with the Premier League, this may have an impact on TV ratings.

There are a couple of ways to quantify this idea.

Of the Top 30 club stadiums in England, just 13 are hosting Premier League football this season. Huge stadiums like Villa Park, St James’ Park, Elland Road and Hillsborough host Championship football. Stadium size is a historic measure of how big clubs once were, rather than still are, but it’s still a decent gauge. I watched Sheffield Wednesday’s Championship playoff semi-final last May at sold-out, 39,000-capacity Hillsborough. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and it sure as hell felt “big” as a TV viewer.

Further to this, there are demographic factors that may be having an impact on Sky’s ratings. While Greater London (9.8m) and Manchester (2.5m) are well represented, the West Midlands (2.4m) has only one club — and arguably its smallest in West Brom — in the top flight, while West Yorkshire (1.8 million) has none. Tyneside (774,000/7th largest in England, and that it excludes Sunderland), Nottingham (730,000/8th), Sheffield (685,000/9th) and Bristol (617,000/10th) are all major urban areas without a Premier League club.

To make a comparison, this would be like a US major league such as the NFL not having teams in Miami, Houston, Washington, Atlanta and Boston. Ratings would surely suffer.

It doesn’t mean no-one is watching Premier League football in these urban areas, but given the local nature of the majority of football support in England, this may have an impact on how many are tuning in. With all due respect to Burnley (149,000/54th) and Swansea (300,000/27th), they can’t drive the audience numbers in the same way.

(Obviously, football in Yorkshire has been struggling for a long while with Leeds and the Sheffield clubs a long way from the Premier League, but the loss of Newcastle and Aston Villa is sure to have an impact this season.)

More subjectively, how we view teams changes very slowly. I still see Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday as “big” clubs in a way that Swansea or Watford will never be, or at least not be for a long time.

To me, Newcastle, Villa, Leeds, Wednesday, Forest and Wolves still rank ahead of Watford, Burnley, Stoke, Swansea, Hull, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. There are too many games that just lack that “big match” aura — and when an early-season encounter between lower-ranked teams like Burnley vs Watford is so abysmal, it hardly encourages you to watch them again.

The final theory, that I’m still collating data for but want to throw out there, is that Manchester United’s audiences aren’t quite what they have been in previous years. Doing my weekly checks last season, the United average audience outside the derbies against City and Liverpool was often somewhat on the low side. Understandable, really, given the dross that was played by Louis van Gaal’s team.

Liverpool still carry massive audiences as a legacy of their two decades of success, and United will continue to be a draw even as a similar dynastic decline sets in. I’m sure, in 20 years, articles will be written about whether Tottenham’s dominance is starting to wain and if broadcasters should start diversifying away to other rising teams.

But seriously, with all six of United’s opening slate of games selected for coverage (by Sky and BT), there is an argument to be made that broadcasters need to be a little more imaginative. Quite how Spurs v Leicester, the two title challengers last season, has escaped live broadcast on October 29 is truly baffling.

The Premier League’s decline comes at the same time as a sharp drop in NFL viewership, bringing the issue to greater relevance. However, trying to connect the two would be yet more conjecture, although US audiences for the Premier League are also down. Here’s a good read on the NFL issue. It should also be noted that this is only Sky’s ratings, we don’t know what is going on at BT Sport. BT Sport’s ratings for live football are routinely so low they fail to crack BARB’s weekly top 30 of non-terrestrial channels, so even though Sky’s ratings are down, at least they aren’t so low they can’t be tracked in this way.

In conclusion, in all likelihood a combination of factors are in play here. More commonly discussed factors such as cost and piracy, combined with poorly chosen matches, the absence of a number of big teams and the loss of the Saturday evening timeslot have combined to harm Sky’s ratings.

Has the bubble burst? It’s way too early to say, but I’ll be keeping an eye out, for sure.

It’s also been a very dry, warm September and October, so you never know, it may just be down to that, no matter how silly it sounds.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat about Spurs and other things.

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How many people actually watch Spurs on TV? Audience analysis of the 2015/16 season

Through the course of this campaign, I have been tracking the audience figures for Spurs matches.

This was an exercise born out of curiosity: I wanted to know how many people were actually tuning in to watch Premier League matches involving Spurs.

The tables contain the full data (explanatory notes are below) for the 2015/16 Premier League season, and also for the 2014/15 campaign. Green denotes matches with an audience over 1 million, red are matches below the threshold for the precise figure to be reported.

201516audience

201415audience

A few key numbers:

  • Spurs were shown 21 times on UK TV in 2015/16, compared with 18 in 2014/15.
  • The average audience for Spurs matches in 2015/16 was 1.13 million, up from 1.04 million in 2014/15.
  • The average audience for Spurs matches on Sky Sports was 1.23 million in 2015/16, up from 1.05 million in 2014/15.
  • The average audience for Spurs matches on BT Sport was 717,000 in 2015/16, down from 1.02 million in 2014/15. The figure for the home match against Chelsea in November on BT was not available.
  • The highest audience for a Spurs match in 2015/16 was 1.79 million against Arsenal (a). In 2014/15, the highest audience was 1.44 million against Manchester United (a). Not our best match, that one…

A few other thoughts:

*The audience varies greatly depending both on the opposition and the timing, as you would expect. The most watched match is normally the prime Sunday 4pm slot. Manchester United and Liverpool attract far more viewers than other teams — after 20 years of Mauricio Pochettino-inspired domination, Spurs will no doubt have a similar pull.

*The sample size is of course far too small to draw any big conclusions in terms of whether the Spurs audience has “increased” or not. But one thing I would note is that Spurs beat the 2014/15 maximum of 1.44 million on four occasions in 2015/16 — Arsenal (a), Man City (a), Man Utd (h) and Chelsea (a).

*Spurs were shown in the Sunday 4pm slot six times in 2015/16, averaging 1.57 million. In 2014/15, Spurs were shown seven times in the prime spot, averaging 1.07 million. Did the fact that Spurs were challenging for the title, rather than drifting around in Europa League contention, make a difference to neutral fans? Certainly, this average of 1.57 million is impressive and must encourage Sky to increase the number of Spurs games next campaign.

*Spurs were shown 21 times on UK television, up from 18 in 2014/15. Under the old TV deal, every extra match that was shown (above the minimum 10) earned an additional £747,176 in TV money (these facility fees account for 25 percent of the total TV pot). This campaign, Arsenal were shown more than any other team, in total 27 times. So simply for being chosen for broadcast, they earned £4.48 million more than Spurs in TV money. The Europa League hurts here, as it means Spurs can only be selected for the slots on Sunday or Monday after European matches, reducing the chances Spurs can secure additional facility fees.

*There were a couple of audiences that appeared disappointing. For BT to draw just 880,000 for a North London derby in March with title implications, and heralded as one of the biggest ever, seemed poor. Likewise attracting just 660,000 for the home match against Liverpool — Jurgen Klopp’s first in charge. The same channel’s failure to crack 590,000 for Spurs v Man City (this one was so low I don’t have the real number) was also below what may have been expected. Sky’s decision to show Spurs three times in a row on Monday night down the stretch didn’t really work for them any more than it did for Spurs. While the Battle of the Bridge was widely viewed, the matches against Stoke and West Brom did not capture the imagination. I hope Sky reconsiders such an unconventional choice should Spurs be competing for the title again in 2016/17 — it can’t have helped.

*The data doesn’t include pubs. However, this may change soon, if developments in the US are a guide.

*As those who follow me on Twitter are aware, I am a big critic of the TV rights system. I believe it short-changes UK fans of Premier League teams, and gives us a far inferior product to what is available everywhere else around the globe. The final day summed up the farce: The match at Old Trafford was abandoned, and instead of offering British viewers the chance to watch, say, Chelsea v Leicester or Newcastle v Spurs, which were being broadcast around the world, Sky Sports showed Swansea v Man City on two channels. I wrote about this issue extensively here — my feelings on the subject have not changed.

My comrade in audience figure monitoring, @Spurs_US, has shared his data for US viewers.

As you can see, the numbers are impressive and are part of a widely reported upward trend. As an unashamed Yankophile, I am delighted to see the English game making such huge strides. I will respond in kind by, erm, watching even more NFL in seasons to come.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

* I use the seven-day data published by BARB, the body which monitors audience figures. The public data only encompasses the top 30 programmes per week, from ALL channels aside from the five main terrestrial ones, which are counted individually. This means certain matches (mostly European ones) don’t rate. If anyone has access to full BARB data, please get in touch. I use the threshold audience for the week in the averages, but it may be much lower.

This data averages the audience through the length of the programme, rather than the peak. It doesn’t include pubs, but it does include legal streaming. You can find out how it is gathered here. It isn’t perfect but it is the best data that is freely available for people like me without a corporate subscription. It enables consistent comparisons.

The Weekly Max: As well as Spurs, I list the most-watched match in that week among all teams, for purposes of comparison.