We anticipated 2019 would be the most watched year in the sample but it also ended up being the first year that outperformed its expected audience
Shalina Nigam
Shalina Nigam is a Senior Analyst at Futures Sport & Entertainment, focusing primarily on television, viewership and sponsorship evaluation for varied international clients. She previously worked in a project management team at J.P. Morgan.
Premier League on track for record UK viewing figures
26th June 2020, 14:20

The 2019-20 Premier League season will be the most watched ever in the United Kingdom. After a three-month hiatus because of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the league was back with a bang on 17 June. We think the three main factors will be the record number of televised matches, the upward trend in audiences and the impact of the pandemic on sport and viewership.

This season is the first in a three-year media rights cycle in which the number of live matches allocated increased once again, this time to 200 per season. History was created as for the first time a non-traditional broadcaster won rights, with Amazon awarded 20 matches a season to air via its Amazon Prime Video platform. Prior to the suspension of the Premier League on 13 March, 153 games had aired across Sky, BT Sport and Amazon. 

Even more live matches

There was a new schedule when the 2019-20 season resumed, with all the remaining 92 matches to be televised live in the UK. This decision meant that a total of 245 games from this season will be broadcast, 45 more than originally allocated. By the time the season ends, 77 more games will have been shown in the UK than the previous record of 168. 

The remaining matches are airing across Sky (64), BT Sport (20), the BBC (4) and Amazon (4). With Amazon’s decision to make its matches available without a Prime Video subscription, adding to Sky’s announcement it would air 25 matches on its Pick TV channel, UK viewers are able to watch 33 without a paid subscription. The Premier League has not been broadcast on free-to-air television since its formation in 1992 so is now accessible to a new audience.

Growth in audiences

Premier League viewership has picked up in recent years, rising to the highest level seen in the UK in the calendar year of 2019. That growth can largely be attributed to three factors:

• TV channel: Being broadcast on Sky, as opposed to BT Sport, increases the audience of an average match by 300,000 viewers. However, the biggest channel impact is from coverage on Sky One, which contributes an additional 350,000 viewers as it is available to those without a Sky Sports subscription.

• Kick-off timeslot: Sunday 4pm is traditionally the best kick-off time for audiences, with Friday evening the least popular.

• Teams involved: A match between the two best supported sides, Liverpool and Manchester United, receives an average of 1.2 million more viewers than a match between two of the least popular teams.

We built a model to predict audiences based on the importance of these three aspects as they interact with one another, which found that 2019 benefitted from the friendliest scheduling in the five-year sample. We anticipated 2019 would be the most watched year in the sample but it also ended up being the first year that outperformed its expected audience. This success can partially be credited to the fairly new rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester City as they fought for the title.

When we performed this analysis in January 2020, we predicted that Premier League audiences would contract slightly based on the first two months of televised fixtures. However, given that there are now new kick-off times and over a third of the remaining matches will be available free-to-air, how might these factors impact Premier League viewership?

As a free-to-air channel had not broadcast a live English top-flight game in 28 years, it was difficult to forecast what the audiences might be. However, 2019-20 season audiences for the BBC’s Match of the Day highlights programmes and live FA Cup games provide some indication. The BBC One Match of the Day broadcasts on Saturday evenings typically average 2.6 million viewers, while a live FA Cup game featuring at least one Premier League team averages 4 million viewers.

Sky One simulcasts previously boosted the average audience per game – 1.4 million with Sky One and Sky Sports versus 1.2 million on Sky Sports only – so we can expect to see a similar if not higher uplift from games simulcast on Pick, which is available free-to-air (Sky One still requires at least a Sky TV subscription).


The pent-up enthusiasm for the season to restart, as well as what is left to play for, could mean that viewers remain engaged for the entirety of this period


No blackout and the appeal of top teams

The biggest change to the timeslots is the televised Saturday 3pm matches made possible by a temporary lifting of the blackout that has been in place since the 1960s. Broadcasters have been unable to air these games in the UK, with the idea being that doing so would have a detrimental knock-on effect on the attendances, and therefore the finances, of other league matches occurring simultaneously. With English leagues except the Premier League and Championship cancelled and the top two leagues playing games behind closed doors, lifting the blackout could be very impactful for television audiences. 

Teams are a big driver of television audiences, and, prior to the Premier League halt, the ‘Big Six’ (Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea) had attracted the highest average audiences this season, albeit benefitting from favourable scheduling having been televised an average of 19 times each versus 11 times for the other 14 clubs.

The most-watched game without one of these six sides was Leicester City vs Everton, which in 23rd place, still had an audience a third lower than the most-watched game overall, namely Liverpool vs Manchester United. The average audience for a Big Six clash is just shy of double that of a non-Big Six game. Luckily, there were still seven of these big matches left to play this season!

While an attractive match-up is likely to drive high audiences, competitive fixtures also prove popular. Although runaway leaders Liverpool had already all but won the Premier League when the season resumed, there was still a significant amount to play for, including places in European competitions in 2020-21, and fighting to avoid relegation from the top flight.

With the condensed timeframe for the rest of this season, these storylines will be completed in six weeks or less. The pent-up enthusiasm for the season to restart, as well as what is left to play for, could mean that viewers remain engaged for the entirety of this period. In the 2018-19 season, Huddersfield Town and Fulham were both relegated by 2 April, and viewership per game slowly declined from March onwards. However, the 2019-20 season was trending in the opposite direction with viewership per game increasing until the suspension of the league in March.

 

Covid-19 impact

As it had been 100 days since a Premier League game had been played, UK viewers appeared to be craving for the resumption. In the final week of May, Google searches for “Premier League return” skyrocketed, being 16.7 times higher than in the first week after the league was postponed (15 to 21 March).

We previously analysed the return of Germany’s Bundesliga, which saw high anticipation translate into strong viewership in the UK. The first set of three games simultaneously broadcast across BT Sport channels on Saturday 16 May at 2pm drew a cumulative average audience of 597,000 – slightly higher than the typical number the broadcaster gets for a Premier League game.

Since the Bundesliga’s return, the league has attracted audiences significantly higher than prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting that the appetite for live football is still strong in the UK. Nevertheless, that initial excitement quickly waned. The average audience of a Bundesliga game between Matchweek 27 and Matchweek 30 was 50 per cent of that seen in the first week back, indicating that the German league had not completely filled the void left by the Premier League’s later restart.

For the first two weeks after the Premier League resumption, the UK hospitality industry is closed and government rules do not yet allow group gatherings inside homes. This means that people are initially unable to either host or attend viewing parties, nor can they watch games in pubs, thus eliminating out-of-home viewership.

With people required to stay home, the way we socialise has altered and general television viewership has grown as a result. Between the traditionally sociable hours of 6pm to 11pm from the middle of March to the end of May, viewership increased by an average of 12 per cent compared to 2019.

This growth should benefit the Premier League as 25 of the first 32 fixtures through 2 July were set to kick off at 6pm or later. The impact of the social restrictions and its effect on television audiences, combined with the pent-up excitement for the league’s return, will likely increase in-home television audiences.


Clubs can feel confident about continuing to deliver value to their partners as higher television audiences translate to increased exposure received and value generated


Conclusion

The success of a season is not solely measured by viewing audiences, and the pandemic will negatively impact other areas such as on-site activations, match day income, and sponsorship deals. There is a significant amount of additional financial pressure on clubs, particularly with high losses predicted due to the lack of matchday revenue for the foreseeable future.

However, clubs can feel confident about continuing to deliver value to their partners as higher television audiences translate to increased exposure received and value generated. There is also the possibility of extra signage in the stands as games are played behind closed doors.

With the 2019-20 Premier League back under way and on course for record viewership figures, there are a number of interesting questions that will be asked to analyse the audience for this historic season.

• Is the Premier League gaining new viewers and reaching different demographics due to the unprecedented free-to-air live coverage?

• What is most important in driving viewership: access to Sky and/or BT Sport; the teams involved; or the channel showing the match?

• Despite broadcasters attempting to create an atmosphere virtually, is the fanless environment impacting on the viewer’s experience?

• Excluding a few dates (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, and the final day of the season), UK viewers are familiar with watching a maximum of two games a day, at different kick-off times. The new schedule sees up to four games a day televised on some weekends as well as three or four games kicking off at the same time on weekdays. Are viewers watching all games offered or choosing to watch a maximum of two a day? Are viewers switching between games aired simultaneously?

Sportcal