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Just as the video killed the radio star, the digital revolution might be killing TV football

Television viewing figures are tumbling as fans cancel subscriptions in favour of social media to leave sports executives nervous and confused

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 9:36pm

Are the gluttonous broadcasters experiencing buyer’s remorse? Viewing figures suggest armchair fans are tuning out and turning off live TV football.

Do you make regular dates with football, nestling into the sofa or bar stool to watch big game on the TV, that weekly instalment to which you have paid good money to subscribe to – all the razzle-dazzle and endless punditry wrapped around the 90 minutes?

If so, then the broadcast right holders and the TV companies will breathe a sigh of relief.

But if you are among the increasing number of armchair fans turning away from live games and cancelling their subscriptions, instead getting their football fix from the myriad of social media offerings on a variety of digital platforms with a tweeted stream here, a clip posted stream there, then you represent a blip in the data that has made the TV and sports executives nervous and confused.

For two decades, the money has washed endlessly into football because of the insatiable thirst among the public to buy the next best thing to watching the game from the terraces – seasonal TV subscriptions.

Money, money, money. There’s so much of it swilling around and changing hands because the global fight for customers knew no limits.

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Just this week, the England’s Football Association forked out £820m (HK$7.72 billion) for six seasons for the international broadcast rights to the FA Cup.

That’s after the £8.2 billion slapped down by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV and British Telecom (BT) for the rights to broadcast live Premier League matches over three seasons; BT spent another £1b to screen the Champions League.

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But what’s this alien dip on the “graph that only ever goes up”? Early season ratings for live Premier League matches on Sky Sports are down by a fifth, or 19%. On one recent Tuesday, BT Sport’s Champions League figures were down by 40%.

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In the US, where broadcasters and cable carriers have collectively shelled out more than US$50b for rights into the early 2020s, mild anxiety has morphed into mild panic that the unthinkable could be happening: fans are tuning out and turning away from live prime-time sport on TV.

US audiences are down and the statistics suggest what was a mere anomaly in the ratings has since recorded a double-digit plunge.

That’s a significant loss against the backdrop of all those media firms betting their respective family farms on subscribers remaining loyal and addicted to live big matches for years – generations, even! – to come.

There are four possible culprits for the turn-off in the US, according to the Atlantic magazine: the presidential debates, so called ‘cord cutters’ – customers cancelling their subscriptions in favour of streaming services such as Netflix, the increasing ability to catch up on games without having to watch them on Twitter streams, and a lack of superstars and heroes.

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NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, argued understanding statistics in the world of subscription viewing is complex, but he admitted worried executives are “trying to figure out what’s changing”.

One obvious reason is the slew of ways to watch football – or any popular live sport – at a time of your choosing. Football is everywhere in the digital sphere and sitting down to watch 90 minutes of action might be gauged as a tedious exercise when you can easily catch ubiquitous highlight clips on various platforms.

In the Premier League, the excuses for the dip are coming thick and fast. The two main broadcasters, Sky and BT, are blaming the Olympic Games, the unseasonably warm weather and lack of titan clashes thus far into the campaign, while the relegation of well-supported teams like Aston Villa and Newcastle United also explain away some of the overall dip.

BT says their Champion Leagues are being watched less because a team like Leicester City does not offer the same sizable fan base, however, Europa League figures are up because Manchester United feature and their global following still cough-up and tune in.

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And the recent “Red Monday”, when Liverpool and Manchester United faced-off, saw the biggest viewing figures for three years – 2.8m viewers, although the groan at the tedium was audible in the pubs, bars and living rooms across the world because the prematch TV hype died a thousands deaths that dreary night.

With so much to lose if their multi-billion bet on assured exponential viewer growth goes south, the sports bodies who own the broadcast rights are currently brushing the concerns aside. But they know they face the most pressure to arrest the decline if it continues and becomes a trend.

Broadcasters will demand more bang for their buck if they are to keep the punters subscribing.

But how can you make live football attractive to a fracturing audience who demand more and more interactivity from their media, and who can access content at a time of and from a channel of their choosing?

Maybe the problem has already passed the point of no return. The last 20 years have seen an endless carnival of watch-it-here, watch-it-there, watch-it-anywhere hype and noise.

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More and more TV subscribers, offered some many other viewing choices, are asking where’s the exclusivity and time value in the live match experience.

Just as the video killed the radio star, the digital revolution might be killing TV football.