Halfway through the season, Antonio Conte, the excitable, tactically savvy manager of Chelsea, is running ahead of rivals in first place in England's top soccer league. The Italian also stands out in another way: his team is the only one of the major teams whose television viewership has risen this season (albeit only very slightly).
Elsewhere, the trend of fewer people tuning in to the country's biggest sport that was detected earlier this season has been confirmed, according to a Gadfly analysis of data from the U.K. Broadcasters' Audience Research Board. Average viewership per game at the halfway point of the season is down 11 percent from a year earlier, and down 22 percent since 2010-2011. This is better than the 14 percent season-on-season slump in the first 10 weeks of the season, but still not much to cheer about.
Oddly, the decline comes as the competition itself is thriving with five teams chasing Chelsea, any one of which could arguably snatch the title by May. Attendance at games is up slightly; the teams are raking in more money than ever because of a huge bump in broadcast fees.
The pain will be felt more at Sky Plc, Europe's pay-television leader, than BT Group Plc, which broadcasts fewer games per week and is expanding from a lower base. Sky's average viewers per match is down 13 percent from last year, and 25 percent from 2010. BT's average has ticked up 3 percent this year, though that comes from its better time slot on a Saturday night.
None of this is particularly good news for Rupert Murdoch's Twenty-First Century Fox Inc., which is buying the 60 percent of Sky it doesn't own for a proposed 11.7 billion pounds. Live sport from Formula One racing to rugby has been a crucial way for Sky to get people to sign up. While BT expanded into broadcasting to sell more telecoms services and keep customers loyal, premium content is Sky's raison d'etre.
Sky has been willing to stump up billions to win sports rights because they've been a sure-fire driver of subscriptions. The Murdochs may have to reconsider their strategy if the pull of live sports weakens.
The declines are more than a blip. The direction of travel is clear and persistent across time slots and teams going back five years.
Some of the explanations given by executives and league officials don't really hold up. No, the relegation of popular teams, Newcastle United and Aston Villa, to a lower league cannot explain the decline. Nor can it be attributed to fewer marquee games between the big six teams: there were actually two more in the period than last year.
Something else is going on. It probably has to do with the ubiquity of entertainment options on our smartphones from cat videos to Pokemon Go, and the vast library of film and TV series available online in the age of Netflix. In surveys, young people express less interest in sports as a genre of TV content than older people.
The decline can be seen too in the U.S. at the big daddy of live sports, the National Football League. When both "footballs" are struggling for attention like this, you have to wonder whether the game is up.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chelsea's viewing figures only increased 0.2 percent, and it had an abysmal 2015-16 season, making for much easier comparables.
The figures don't include people who watch on phones or tablets.
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