Media

Elaine He oversees Bloomberg Gadfly's data visualization work in Europe and also pursues her own columns combining business and markets coverage. Before joining Bloomberg, she was a graphics editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Leila Abboud is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously worked for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

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).

Lost Ground
The live TV audience for most of the top six teams is falling halfway into the season, with only Chelsea rising very slightly
Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Bureau
Note: Data not available for one Manchester United game in 2011-12; doesn't include people watching on mobile devices

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.

Halftime Score
Average viewership of Premier League games has fallen 11 percent in the first half of season
Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board
Note: Data not available for one BT broadcast in 2011-12; doesn't include people watching on mobile devices

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.

Weekly Picture
Average Premier League viewership has declined for 13 of the first 19 weeks of the season
Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board
Note: Doesn't include people who watch games on mobile devices

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.

Kickoff Time
Premier League ratings are down across time slots, except for Saturday midday games. Though these were inflated by moving from BT to Sky
Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board
Note: Data are for the first 19 rounds of each season; data not available for a Saturday evening broadcast in 2011-12; doesn't include people watching on mobile devices

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.

Relegated Irrelevance
Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Norwich City were relegated last season. But the drop in ratings can't be attributed to the their absence
Source: Broadcasters' Audience Research Board
*Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur **2016-17 data also don't include Burnley, Hull City and Middlesbrough, which were promoted this season Note: Data not available for one BT broadcast in 2011-12; doesn't include people watching on mobile devices

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.

  1. Chelsea's viewing figures only increased 0.2 percent, and it had an abysmal 2015-16 season, making for much easier comparables.

  2. The figures don't include people who watch on phones or tablets.

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