What is behind the great Premier League switch-off?

Last Sunday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t watch any football.

I wasn’t busy, it wasn’t an international break, and there wasn’t another major sporting event that I wanted to watch between 2pm and 6pm. Instead, I looked at the two Premier League games that were being shown by Sky Sports — Middlesbrough vs Watford, followed by Southampton vs Burnley — and thought: “Nah, I’ll pass.”

The uninspiring choice of Sunday games came at an awkward moment for Sky, following a report by the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale that viewing figures were down 19 percent year-on-year. The broadcaster will have pinned hopes on Monday’s game between Liverpool vs Manchester United, the clubs with the two biggest fanbases, to quell talk that the Premier League bubble is starting to burst.

So, how real is the dip in Premier League audiences? And what are the factors that could be behind Sky’s audience dropping so dramatically?

First, it should be noted that the season is still young, and normally viewing figures increase as the evenings draw in, particularly in the Sunday 4pm and Saturday 5.30pm slots. But, as someone who tracks audience figures for Spurs matches out of personal interest, there are signs that the numbers tuning in are indeed low.

The most-watched Premier League game so far this season (excluding Liverpool v Man Utd, which isn’t publicly available yet), by BARB’s “average audience” measurement, was the Manchester derby on September 10. This drew 1.18 million in the lunchtime Saturday kick off. The equivalent game last season, a Sunday 2pm kick-off, drew 1.98 million. The reverse fixture in March, in the Sunday 4pm slot, drew 1.82 million.

After the Manchester derby, by my count, the second most-watched match was Spurs vs Manchester City on October 2, which averaged 1.06 million viewers in the Sunday 2pm slot. This just pipped Chelsea vs Liverpool, a Friday night offering that averaged 1.04m.

While 1.06m is more than respectable for Spurs v Man City, it is below the average for televised Spurs matches last season, which was 1.13 million. When Spurs travelled to Manchester City in February last season, that drew 1.78m in the prime Sunday 4pm slot.

One area in particular where Sky is apparently hurting is the Sunday 4pm slot, normally the prime selection of the week. The last four matches — Swansea v Chelsea, Spurs v Sunderland, West Ham v Bournemouth and Burnley v Arsenal — all failed to crack the 1 million mark. In the equivalent fixture block last season, these matches averaged over 1 million.

(BARB’s average audience measure isn’t perfect, and the broadcasters prefer to refer to the “peak” audience figure. However, the average audience is the only one that is made public, and it serves a purpose of enabling comparisons. More explanation in my previous piece on the subject.)

So, what could be behind it?

There have been some interesting explanations raised, from the tedious football being played by some of the Premier League’s lesser lights, to piracy, cost of subscriptions and crap coverage.

These explanations are all, no doubt, true to an extent.

I watched Burnley v Watford a few weeks ago, or rather started watching it and switched off and watched a couple of old episodes of Elementary for the third time instead. The standard was abysmal, but not entertainingly so, and anything was better than watching that.

Piracy continues to advance in terms of quality and accessibility, through streaming services like Kodi and other new technology. I subscribe to both Sky Sports and BT Sport, but last Saturday at 3pm I was forced to find a stream to watch Spurs. I have zero sympathy with the Premier League (and yes, there are a number of parties that would need to agree to a change) on this score. In 2016, there is simply no justification for viewers in the UK not getting the same choice as fans everywhere else in the world. It borders on cruelty and has created a market for piracy.

When the pirated offering is better — or at least, more comprehensive — than the paid offering, it’s going to mean less people pay. How you measure this, however, I don’t know — Sky’s revenues continue to climb, but subscriber growth is growing, per the last quarterly report.

Cost is undoubtedly a factor too, especially given broader economic trends that have seen a divergence in incomes both geographically and generationally. Football on TV is incredibly expensive now. A full subscription to BT and Sky will cost over £1,000 for a household, and this doesn’t even get you 2/3 of the matches. It doesn’t feel like great value now.

I’d add here, an argument gets made that we are experiencing “overkill” due to too much football on UK TV — personally I think it is the opposite, with too many fan bases getting too small a selection of games, meaning limited incentive to subscribe. Leicester, for example, were only shown eight times in total in the season before their miraculous title-winning campaign — hardly a huge incentive to subscribe to both Sky and BT. This season, with many more Premier League games and Champions League football, it is much better value for a Leicester City fan, and you can be sure that Leicester’s audiences have crept up somewhat as a result.

Rising prices, and advances in illegal streaming, may have led to a reduction among rated audiences. But it’s impossible to know how many, and it’s not like streaming sites have only sprung up this season. Also, while it seems like many, many people must be doing this if you judge by Twitter, it’s useful to remember that Twitter is a small sample and generally a terrible reflection of reality.

As for punditry, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. While Jamie Redknapp and Thierry Henry are dreadful, Sky still boast three of the best of the business in Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness. Sky’s coverage certainly hasn’t gotten worse compared to last year. But either way, it is fairly inconsequential — most fans tune in for the game, not the talking.

However, there are also some other explanations for Sky’s poor ratings that are worth a mention.

First, swapping their Saturday slot with BT was always going to be bad for Sky’s audience figures.

The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off routinely draws a low audience, as people have, well, life to be getting on with at that time of a weekend, whereas by 5.30pm you are far more likely to be ready to put your feet up and watch a game. The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off, however, is excellent for fans in Asia, so the Premier League will still want its big guns in that slot even if it doesn’t suit Sky.

Second, the Premier League is missing some “big” clubs this season, and this is harming ratings.

When Aston Villa played Newcastle last month, an average of more than 500,000 tuned in — that is the first time that I’ve seen a Championship match on BARB’s Top 30 weekly ranking.

The 2016/17 Premier League must feature the smallest number of “big” clubs of any edition to date.

That’s not to say the likes of Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford don’t deserve to be there, while Leeds, Villa and Newcastle should automatically be in the top flight in some Charlie Stillitano-inspired ratings stitch-up. But when you have big fanbases out of the top flight and not engaged with the Premier League, this may have an impact on TV ratings.

There are a couple of ways to quantify this idea.

Of the Top 30 club stadiums in England, just 13 are hosting Premier League football this season. Huge stadiums like Villa Park, St James’ Park, Elland Road and Hillsborough host Championship football. Stadium size is a historic measure of how big clubs once were, rather than still are, but it’s still a decent gauge. I watched Sheffield Wednesday’s Championship playoff semi-final last May at sold-out, 39,000-capacity Hillsborough. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and it sure as hell felt “big” as a TV viewer.

Further to this, there are demographic factors that may be having an impact on Sky’s ratings. While Greater London (9.8m) and Manchester (2.5m) are well represented, the West Midlands (2.4m) has only one club — and arguably its smallest in West Brom — in the top flight, while West Yorkshire (1.8 million) has none. Tyneside (774,000/7th largest in England, and that it excludes Sunderland), Nottingham (730,000/8th), Sheffield (685,000/9th) and Bristol (617,000/10th) are all major urban areas without a Premier League club.

To make a comparison, this would be like a US major league such as the NFL not having teams in Miami, Houston, Washington, Atlanta and Boston. Ratings would surely suffer.

It doesn’t mean no-one is watching Premier League football in these urban areas, but given the local nature of the majority of football support in England, this may have an impact on how many are tuning in. With all due respect to Burnley (149,000/54th) and Swansea (300,000/27th), they can’t drive the audience numbers in the same way.

(Obviously, football in Yorkshire has been struggling for a long while with Leeds and the Sheffield clubs a long way from the Premier League, but the loss of Newcastle and Aston Villa is sure to have an impact this season.)

More subjectively, how we view teams changes very slowly. I still see Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday as “big” clubs in a way that Swansea or Watford will never be, or at least not be for a long time.

To me, Newcastle, Villa, Leeds, Wednesday, Forest and Wolves still rank ahead of Watford, Burnley, Stoke, Swansea, Hull, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. There are too many games that just lack that “big match” aura — and when an early-season encounter between lower-ranked teams like Burnley vs Watford is so abysmal, it hardly encourages you to watch them again.

The final theory, that I’m still collating data for but want to throw out there, is that Manchester United’s audiences aren’t quite what they have been in previous years. Doing my weekly checks last season, the United average audience outside the derbies against City and Liverpool was often somewhat on the low side. Understandable, really, given the dross that was played by Louis van Gaal’s team.

Liverpool still carry massive audiences as a legacy of their two decades of success, and United will continue to be a draw even as a similar dynastic decline sets in. I’m sure, in 20 years, articles will be written about whether Tottenham’s dominance is starting to wain and if broadcasters should start diversifying away to other rising teams.

But seriously, with all six of United’s opening slate of games selected for coverage (by Sky and BT), there is an argument to be made that broadcasters need to be a little more imaginative. Quite how Spurs v Leicester, the two title challengers last season, has escaped live broadcast on October 29 is truly baffling.

The Premier League’s decline comes at the same time as a sharp drop in NFL viewership, bringing the issue to greater relevance. However, trying to connect the two would be yet more conjecture, although US audiences for the Premier League are also down. Here’s a good read on the NFL issue. It should also be noted that this is only Sky’s ratings, we don’t know what is going on at BT Sport. BT Sport’s ratings for live football are routinely so low they fail to crack BARB’s weekly top 30 of non-terrestrial channels, so even though Sky’s ratings are down, at least they aren’t so low they can’t be tracked in this way.

In conclusion, in all likelihood a combination of factors are in play here. More commonly discussed factors such as cost and piracy, combined with poorly chosen matches, the absence of a number of big teams and the loss of the Saturday evening timeslot have combined to harm Sky’s ratings.

Has the bubble burst? It’s way too early to say, but I’ll be keeping an eye out, for sure.

It’s also been a very dry, warm September and October, so you never know, it may just be down to that, no matter how silly it sounds.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat about Spurs and other things.

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Originally published at thespursreport.wordpress.com on October 19, 2016.