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May 2021

As the audience for live games on pay TV continues to decline, the chances of a financial crash continues.

By Tony Attwood

As you may know, if you are a regular reader of Untold, there are certain themes within football that we particularly like to cover: the quality and bias of refereeing, the way the media both define what is important and what is not and then comment upon it as if they were neutral observers, corruption within the game, why England has done so badly as a team, commemorating Arsenal’s heritage at the Emirates Stadium, child trafficking, Fifa, the FA, the injury myth, fake transfers and on and on…

One of the themes we’ve worked on from the start is the relationship between Sky (and more recently BT) on the one hand and the clubs and their fans on the other.

We’ve often said that if Sky/BT go on as they are, audience figures will decline.  As a result Sky and BT will suddenly start offering far less for the rights to games, and the clubs will find it very hard to adjust to a sudden, dramatic drop in income.

And now the first part of that prediction is happening.  Sky is showing its biggest decline in football viewing since the current system of measuring audiences began in 2010.  Given that prior to 2010 audience figures were growing constantly as take up of satellite technology was increasing, this looks like the biggest decline since the start of football on satellite TV in the UK, last century.

Plus I should add, this is not just Untold getting all uppity about things: there is a big report on the issue in the Financial Times (a very upstanding London daily which tends not to print pictures of naked women or do much in the way of covering fake news).

The problem for Sky is that, as the FT says, “Broadcasters are paying record fees to reach fewer people”.

Now we have known this for a while, but it is the scale of the drop that is now causing a certain chill to run around both Sky and the clubs.  The watching of live games on Sky last year went down by 14% last season, just at the moment that Sky decided to pay  70% more for the games taking its cost to £4.2 billion for 126 live Premier League fixtures a year.

If this continues Sky can’t possibly cover its losses through another price hike.  But live sports is the way Sky attracts its audience and the way clubs get their money.  Here is how much the top seven clubs in the Premier League earned from PL matches.

  • Chelsea: £153.2 million
  • Manchester City: £149.4 million (97% of Chelsea’s income)
  • Tottenham Hotspur: £148.5 million (96% of Chelsea’s income)
  • Liverpool: £148.4 million (96% of Chelsea’s income)
  • Manchester United: £143.6 million (93% of Chelsea’s income)
  • Arsenal: £142.8 million (93% of Chelsea’s income)
  • Everton: £132.4 million (86% of Chelsea’s income)

Now Sky, in their response to questions about this, say that the total number of people watching was at a three-year high last season.  Sky Go (the streaming service) is growing rapidly, as is the use of day passes which mean you can buy access to a match for £6.99 – which helps explain this claim.

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Sky also has all sorts of other explanations.  Last season Newcastle and Aston Villa (who get largish audiences) were not in the PL and they say that knocked them back.  There was an Olympic hangover, they say with people having watched so much Olympic sport they don’t watch football.  I find either very viable as explanations, but we shall see over time.

But what I think is also true is that the credibility of broadcasters is diminished by other factors such as the bowing and scraping to the utterly corrupt Fifa, the oddness and bias of the commentary and what are still laughably called “studio experts”, who seem to have as much connection with the fans as Theresa May has with ordinary everyday working people in the UK.

For anyone who doesn’t go to any PL games there is obviously the notion that what is shown on the screen is how it is, but increasingly for people who do go to games, there is an awareness that what turns up on Sky isn’t actually what one sees in the ground.  Whether it is the refusal to show time wasting, the focus on the tiny minority of fans holding placards, the failure to consider cumulative questionable refereeing decisions, or the willingness to employ appalling people like Andy Gray and Richard Keys all the way through until they blurt out their sexism out in public, it all turns people off.  And that is before one considers the price hikes that go on every year.

These issues will all arise again in the Confederations Cup being held in Russia.  It is a relevant fact that Andrej Nawalny has been arrested for 30 days, leaving him free only after the tournament.  But it won’t be mentioned by the commentators covering the games (no matter which channel it is on), because of their employer’s insistence that “football fans don’t want to know about politics”.

Likewise for the duration of the Cup in Russia, as in the Sochi Games in 2014, the right of demonstration and assembly in the country is restricted.

At the same time all foreign journalists have to abide by the rule that they only have only a Fifa accreditation and can thus only report on football.  Anyone who wants to report on other topics needs an extra permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Such manipulation of reality ought to bring about major protests by the broadcasters, but no, they bend the knee to whichever racist, homophobic government is holding the competition.  Maybe many people don’t notice.  Maybe many don’t care.  But quite a few do, and some of these are not renewing subscriptions.

By not mentioning such factors the audience is treated like ill-informed bumpkins, but gradually the mood is changing.  Maybe the majority of viewers are continuing to watch, but the drop in numbers is something that was never included in the budgeting when Sky agreed to pay the price hike at the last round of bidding.

The point is that if Sky does dramatically reduce its bid next time around, most clubs will not be ready for it, as they are mostly spending the money on commitments to player contracts, long before the TV money arrives.

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10 comments to As the audience for live games on pay TV continues to decline, the chances of a financial crash continues.

  • nicky

    With respect, Tony, regardless of the cost and intent of Sky and BT, the importance of these two broadcasters to the old and infirm, together with those in distant lands, cannot be over-estimated.
    While I accept your statistics, it must be remembered that the loyal support for Arsenal Football Club via global TV, far outweighs that which emanates from the UK. 😉

  • Andy Mack

    nicky, does the global TV support supply the majority of the clubs income? From a purely financial perspective global TV is a minor issue until it does.

  • Gord

    I had mentioned an article on this a day or so ago on Untold. I suspect it was the FT article.

    One thing that was missing (I thought), was the officiating. So, I wrote the authors of the article, and told them why I haven’t watched any EPL games in the last year or so.

    I haven’t as yet received a reply. I did not tell them of the work Untold has done, but I did specifically mention bias by officials. Maybe they will stumble across the work of Walter, Andrew, et al here on their own.

    Who wants to watch a tilted match?

  • nicky

    @Andy Mack,
    I was merely inviting attention to the vital importance of global TV (with all its imperfections), to the millions worldwide who rely on the broadcasts to see their heroes perform.
    They will never visit the Ems, nor see their heroes in the flesh, yet the value of TV to so many is beyond price. 😉

  • Andy Mack

    nicky, global TV is undoubtedly important to the supporters (except the few that are dumb enough to believe you can’t be a supporter if you don’t go to games), and I’m sure it’s also viewed as important to the club (they can’t charge advertisers the same as Real Madrid/Barca/Dis-Utd etc as we’re a much smaller global brand than they are), but for the moment their financial support to the club is minor compared to the UK TV deal.

    Personally I hope they reduce the UK TV price for the next contract and the small teams can no longer buy the expensive players they do now (like the smaller teams in every other European league), and that meanwhile we can expand our Global support / commercial income.
    But at present the UK TV deal is what all PL clubs are thriving on.

  • Gord

    OT: Corruption News

    There is some news out of the Swiss prosecutors office. Apparently they now have (about) 25 criminal investigations ongoing with respect to FIFA. The FBI is also pursuing a number of investigations.

    Apparently, the septic blatterbird is one of the Swiss investigations (I’m clean, I’m clean).

    No word if the infant one is also on the list. That would be rich!

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    Hmmn, global live telecast of the Premier Leagues games by the Sky Sports and the BT Sports as it’s presently contracted to them to show the games live by the owners of the PL matches is very important to the football fans worldwide in general and in particular to the football clubs supporters who rely solely on these two Sports media to watch live football and other live sporting events and also watch their darling clubs playing matches live throughout the season’s campaign. In Nigeria, we watch PL and the La Liga matches on Dstv channels 11 & 12 who must have bought the live telecasting of the games from Sky & BT to show the games live and reshow them to us again @#6000/month before but now it’s been increased to #6300/m. That’s an increase of #300/m for those of us who subscribed on Compact decoder.

    I think the issues of the non correct showing of the true events in a game that happened on the field of play, and the non showing of the true happenings on the stands too during a PL game by the Sky & the BT Tvs and by their commentators who run the commentaries during a match more especially on time wasting by the goalkeepers and delaying tactics employed by the players and the incompetency and deliberate match rigging officiatings by the Pgmol officials to tilt the outcome of a match in favour of of a particular team/club is thought to be responsible for the gradual decline in TV audience subscriptions in watching live telecast of the PL matches showing by Sky & and BT, why can’t another Sports TV like the Espn and others come in to get contracts from the Premier League/the FA to start a healthy rivalry competion with Sky and BT by showing the contrast to what they’ve been showing, the truth, to consequently break their monopoly?

  • Nitram

    Sorry but I simply think it has reached ‘saturation’ point.

    Bowing and scraping to FIFA:

    Not a chance. I’ve said on here a few times before that as soon as I mention this kind of thing at work I get a cursory ‘I Know, terrible isn’t it’ then there straight back onto there ‘4 aways’ for the weekend. They don’t give a shit.

    Ref Bias:

    No chance. Every fan I ever speak to thinks it is there team, and only there team, that get screwed by referees. This is the case now, and has been ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper.

    Bad punditry:

    I remember Jimmy Hill et el getting just as much criticism as the pundits of today, it’s just there’s more of them, obviously given the amount of football on TV.

    Bias commentary:

    We’ve been either boring Arsenal, Lucky Arsenal, Foreign Arsenal, Dirty Arsenal, Spineless Arsenal, or any combination of the above since I was Knee…….well you get the picture. So as an Arsenal fan I can say with hand on heart that biased commentary is certainly nothing new.

    So as much as all the issues outlined are certainly true, I think they’ve always been there, so how are they in any way responsible for audience decline?

    Nope, too much football on TV. As simple as that.

  • para

    The fact that people who just like football have to subscribe to two TV(Sky + BT) if they want all football is a no go really.

    Still the few “illegal” (like movie) watchers are not ever going to take Sky or BTs money away, and would probably not get a subsciption anyway, most others dont want to “fiddle” with looking for a stream etc.

    We know it’s wrong, but hey, there is so much “wrong” in the world that people feel duped over and over with rising prices for no reasons etc, etc.

  • Dr Duh

    ESPN was the canary in the coal mine. They paid $15 billion dollars for partial rights to American Football. At the time it made sense. Exclusive rights to must see sporting events allowed them to continue raising rates to the cable companies while forcing inclusion in most of the cable packages. But, cable costs have crossed a pain threshold while technology has reached an inflection point where people are increasingly ‘cutting the cord’. I’m constantly surprised by the people who I find out have Kodi boxes, wealthy doctors, grandmothers, etc. As a result ESPN is laying off people. It’s just a matter of time before this filters down to the teams. I don’t know anyone who will be upset about pro-athletes making less money.

    I expect something similar will eventually come to the Prem.