When Manchester United lifted the European Cup last week, one of the most dramatic 12 months in British football came to a climax. The 19.6 million who saw the club scoop the biggest prize in European football might think all is well on England’s playing fields.
Not in my opinion. The latest BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) figures show the audience for BSkyB’s live Premier League matches dropped by 20 per cent last year. So is there too much football on British TV? Sky has shown more than 250 live matches since last August, and a further 60 matches were broadcast on other channels. Where does this leave the hard-to-reach, light viewing young male?
Previously fans watched everything that came their way, because there was so little live football on TV. The huge rise in coverage proves football sells, but since the World Cup in France last year, the pattern has changed. Even the most ardent fan cannot watch a match every night, and their viewing has become more selective.
This shift in behaviour has resulted in viewers favouring Champions’ League games on ITV over Sky Sports Premier League coverage. The buzzword now is quality not quantity. BARB figures released last week show viewing levels for the Champions’ League have grown on average by 2 million per match in the 1998/99 season.
Advertisers crave event football. The young, male, dynamic environment it delivers stands out from most of the schedule. TV buyers dream of telling their clients that they’ve secured it. Football is the only environment that TV companies can genuinely sell at a premium. Last week, the Soho bush telegraph revealed a 30-second spot in the Man U game sold for £140,000. That’s twice the going rate for Coronation Street.
Next season, three English sides will contest the Champions’ League. This will generate more quality event football, and audience equals income.
What will Sky do? With its purchase of Man U blocked, and diminishing in-home spectators, it has turned to its huge unrecorded audience, the pub-goer. Next season, BSkyB will launch Pub TV in 29,000 outlets.
Yet TV buyers know this unmeasured audience was included in the premiums paid for BSkyB’s football spots. Will they be prepared to pay the same premiums next year, when pub viewers are excluded? It seems optimistic to expect buyers to pay twice.
Can BSkyB reverse its in-home audience losses? With more live Champions’ League, UEFA,
FA Cup and Euro 2000 qualifiers next year the task will be difficult. With this shift in viewers’ attitudes, Sky will push harder to introduce pay-per-view football to recoup revenue, because Premier League rights are likely to cost a lot more next time round.
Along with death and taxes there seems to be another iron certainty in life: Sky expects viewers and advertisers to pay more for the same.