English Football's Big Guns Aren't Pulling in the Viewers

TV viewers have been losing interest, even in the big guns.
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Pep Guardiola's arrival at Manchester City this season made the English Premier League the home of the Galactico boss. With arch-rival Jose Mourinho taking the hot seat across town at Manchester United and Antonio Conte trying to revive Chelsea, the hope was that the excitement factor in the world's most popular soccer club championship would reach new levels of delirium.

If so, someone forgot to tell Britain's legion of armchair TV fans, who've been switching off in droves. Our Bloomberg News colleagues looked at this earlier this week, noting that fewer people were watching the marquee Sunday afternoon games. And a deeper dive by Gadfly into viewing figures for all televised matches during this season's first 10 weeks shows the malaise is general.

The average viewership per game broadcast on Sky is down 18 percent from last year, and 27 percent from 2010, according to data from the U.K. Broadcasters' Audience Research Board. 

Slow Start

Sky's average viewership for matches is down 18 percent in the first 10 weeks of this season from last and 27 percent from 2010-11. BT's ratings have grown 11 percent this season after it switched from broadcasting the Saturday midday game to the Saturday evening one, which is a bigger draw.

Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board

Note: Data are for the first 10 rounds of each season; BARB data don't include people who watch games on mobile devices

Even if you just look at the five most followed teams -- Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal -- their viewership is down, with the exception of Chelsea (recovering from a dismal season last time around).

Fickle Fans

The audience for top teams has also declined so far this year, except for Chelsea which saw a spike given a strong start this season and when it won the title in 2014-15

Source: Broadcasters' Audience Reach Bureau

Note: Data are for the first 10 rounds of each season.

The picture isn't any prettier if you look at the figures for individual time slots for games:

Kick Off Time

Weekend viewership for Premier League games has decreased, with the exception of the Saturday midday game. That's due to the game moving from BT to Sky, which has a larger subscriber base.

Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board

Note: Data are for the first 10 games of each season

The week-by-week numbers haven't been reassuring either.

The Weekly Picture

Average Premier League viewership has declined for seven of the first 10 weeks of the season

Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board

There are caveats, of course. Some of this year's decline can be attributed to sports fatigue in August when games had to compete with the Olympics and came shortly after the Euro 2016 tournament. Ratings data don't include people who watch on smartphones or tablets.

Yet for Rupert Murdoch-backed Sky Plc, which shelled out 4.2 billion pounds ($5.3 billion) for screening rights to 2016-2019 games, it's a worrying sign that could one day dent subscriptions. The stakes are lower for BT Group, which paid close to 1 billion pounds for one weekly game in the same period, since it doesn't rely on sport as heavily.

Unlike sport shown on free channels, the size of the audience week to week doesn't immediately affect Sky or BT's bottom-line since ad revenue is less important than subscriptions. For its part, Sky says internal metrics are holding up, including the share of national viewing during a given time slot.

Nevertheless, the drop in viewership is notable because it's occurring at a time of great tumult in media. Younger people are watching less TV and many prefer Snapchat. Netflix and YouTube let you get hours of video for much less than the cost of a traditional pay-TV subscription. For many, the idea of sitting down to watch a program live is an anachronism.

Sport is one of the few things that still inspires people to watch live. Nothing replaces the vibe that comes from yelling at the TV when Olivier Giroud screws up another shot. If the grip of live sport weakens, it'll leave pay-TV providers like Sky without any heavy guns in the fight for customers. American football is struggling too.

It's still early in the season, though, so Sky and BT will hope to turn things around. Sky says improvements in viewership can be seen already: after declining 28 percent year-on-year in August, September fell 5 percent, and October 2 percent. Last weekend's 5-0 thumping of Everton by Chelsea was followed swiftly by Liverpool's 6-1 demolition of Watford, so the entertainment factor's there. It's not over till the final whistle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Elaine He in London at ehe36@bloomberg.net
    Leila Abboud in Paris at labboud@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

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