The 2019/20 Premier League season will be the most watched Premier League season ever in the United Kingdom. After a three-month hiatus because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Premier League will be back with a bang on the 17th of June. We think there are three main factors that will lead to this season’s Premier League being crowned as the most watched season in history:
- The story of broadcast rights so far
- The growth of Premier League’s audiences in 2019
- The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
Broadcast Rights History
Sky’s successful bid for the rights to the newly-formed Premier League in 1992 transformed English football as top-flight games moved behind a paywall for the first time. Sky continued to secure the exclusive domestic broadcast rights for every rights cycle between 1992 and 2007, with the number of televised games per season growing from 60 to 138 during this 15 year period.
A new regulation from the European Commission requiring at least two broadcasters to hold Premier League rights subsequently ended Sky’s monopoly. From 2007 to 2013, a total of 138 matches per season aired as Sky shared the Premier League rights with Setanta and then ESPN.
The broadcast landscape from the 2013/14 season onwards more closely resembles what we are accustomed to now, with live games aired by both Sky and BT. In this rights cycle, BT secured 38 matches per season and Sky won 116. The allocation of games again grew for the third consecutive rights cycle to a total of 168 per season for the 2016/17 to 2018/19 seasons. The increasing number of games aired a season mirrored the growing popularity of the Premier League, exemplified by a quick look at Google searches for the league.
The 2019/20 season is the first in the most recent three-year rights cycle and the number of matches awarded increased once again, this time to 200 per season. The Premier League created history in this rights cycle as it was the first time that a non-traditional television broadcaster won rights, with Amazon awarded 20 matches a season to air via its Amazon Prime platform. Prior to the postponement of the Premier League on March 13th 2020, 153 games had aired across Sky, BT and Amazon.
It will once again be a new-look broadcast schedule when the 2019/20 season resumes as all remaining 92 matches will be aired in the UK. This decision means that a total of 245 games from this season will be broadcast on television, 45 more than the originally allocated amount. By the time this season finally ends, 77 more games will have been shown in the UK than the previous record of 168.
The remaining 92 matches will air live across Sky Sports (64 matches), BT Sport (20), BBC (4), and Amazon (4). With Amazon’s decision to make its allocation of matches available without a Prime Video subscription adding to Sky’s prior announcement to air 25 games on their Pick TV channel, UK viewers will be able to watch 33 matches without a Pay-TV subscription. The Premier League has not been broadcast on Free-to-Air television since its formation in 1992, so for the first time in 28 years the Premier League will be accessible to a new audience.
Recent Growth of Audiences
We previously analysed the peaks and troughs of Premier League viewership in the UK. The 2016/17 season saw a drop in audiences compared to the 2015/16 season, which featured Leicester City’s improbable title win.
Leicester games failed to attract the same number of viewers compared to the previous season as the team failed to defend their title and finished in 12th place. BT and Sky also switched the rights to the Saturday timeslots for the 2016/17 season, so Sky televised the early fixture and BT took the late match. The audiences for the late match on BT ended up falling by a higher amount than the early game audiences on Sky grew. However, the largest factor in the season-on-season decline was Newcastle’s relegation at the end of the 2015/16 season. The Magpies attracted the 9th largest audience per match and were televised 16 times (8th highest), which was greater than each of the three newly promoted teams in the 2016/17 season (Burnley, Hull, and Middlesbrough).
Premier League viewership picked up again in the years that followed, eventually rising to the highest level we’ve seen in the UK in 2019.
That growth can largely be attributed to three categories:
- TV channel: Being broadcast on Sky, as opposed to BT, increases the audience of an average match by 300k viewers. However, the biggest channel impact is from coverage on Sky One, which contributes 350k 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 evenings the least popular
- Teams involved: A match between the two best supported sides, Liverpool and Manchester United, receives an average audience 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 in 2020.
However, given that there are now new kick-off times and that over a third of the remaining matches will be available on Free-to-Air, how might these factors impact Premier League viewership upon its return?
As a Free-to-Air channel has not broadcast a live English top-flight game in 28 years it is difficult to forecast what the audiences might be. However, 2019/20 season audiences for Match of the Day and the FA Cup can provide some indication. Match of the Day’s BBC1 broadcasts on Saturday evenings typically receive an average audience of 2.6 million viewers per programme, whilst a live FA Cup game featuring at least one Premier League team has an average audience of 4 million viewers per match. 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 – 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 required at least a Sky TV subscription).
The largest change to the kick-off timeslot is that the Saturday 3pm blackout, which has been in place since the 1960s, is temporarily lifted for the remainder of this season. Broadcasters have been unable to air these games in the UK, with the idea that televising these games would have a knock-on detrimental effect on the attendances, and therefore the finances, of other football league games occurring simultaneously. With the remainder of games for all leagues except the Premier League and Championship cancelled and these two leagues playing behind closed doors, lifting the blackout could be very impactful for television audiences.
Teams are a big driver of television audiences, and the “Big Six” teams attracted the highest average audience per game so far this season, albeit benefitting from favourable scheduling having been televised an average of 19 times per team versus 11 times for the remaining 14 clubs. The most watched game without one of these six sides was Leicester v Everton, which at the 23rd highest game was still over a third lower than the most watched game of Liverpool v Manchester United. The average audience for a “Big Six” clash is just shy of double that of a non-“Big Six” game this season. Luckily, there are still seven of these matches left to play this season!
Whilst match-up is still likely to drive high audiences, competitive fixtures could also prove popular. Although Liverpool have already all but won the league, there is still a significant amount to play for as the battle to secure European football and the fight to avoid relegation are still ongoing. As it currently stands, Manchester City are in second place but unable to compete in Europe next season with the team in fifth taking their coveted spot amongst Europe’s elite. Manchester United currently occupy that position, but Wolves and Sheffield United are only two points behind and will certainly fancy their chances of securing an unlikely place in next season’s Champions League. Spurs and Arsenal, in eighth and ninth places respectively, will also hope to overhaul their current deficit.
At the other end of the table, there are arguably six teams – five of which are within four points of one another – fighting to remain in the Premier League next season. Due to the updated timeframe for this season, these storylines will be completed in six weeks or less. The pent-up enthusiasm for the season to restart, as well as all that is left to play for, could mean that viewers remain engaged for the entirety of this period. In the 2018/19 season, Huddersfield and Fulham were both relegated by April 2nd 2019, 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 league’s postponement on March 13th 2020.
The last Premier League game was played 100 days ago, and UK viewers seem to be craving its return. In the final week of May, Google searches for “Premier League return” skyrocketed and were 16.7 times higher than in the first week after the league was postponed (March 15th – March 21st).
We previously analysed the viewership for the Bundesliga’s return, which saw high anticipation translate to strong viewership. The first set of three games, which were simultaneously broadcast across BT Sport channels on Saturday May 16th at 2pm, drew a cumulative average audience of 597,000 – slightly higher than the typical number that BT Sport receives for a Premier League game. The average Bundesliga game since the league’s return continues to attract an audience significantly higher than the equivalent metric prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that the appetite for live football is still strong in the UK. Nevertheless, that initial excitement for the Bundesliga quickly waned. The average audience of a Bundesliga game between Matchweek 27 and Matchweek 30 is 50% of the average audience we saw in the first week back, indicating that Bundesliga has not completely filled the void left by the Premier League’s later restart.
For at least the first two weeks after the Premier League returns on June 17th the hospitality industry will remain closed and government rules do not yet allow group gatherings inside homes. These COVID-19 rules mean that people will initially be unable to either host or attend viewing parties, nor will they be able to watch games at 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 mid-March to the end of May, viewership has increased an average of 12% in 2020 when compared to 2019. This growth in audiences should benefit the Premier League as 25 of the first 32 fixtures that have been released (through July 2nd) will 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.
The success of a season is not solely measured by audiences and the global COVID-19 pandemic could unfortunately continue to negatively impact other aspects, 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 match day revenue for the foreseeable future. However, clubs can feel confident around continuing to deliver value to their partners as higher television audiences translates 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, which is additional real estate usually unavailable for partners.
Given the record number of games to be televised this season, the recent growth in audiences, and COVID-19’s impact on both sport and television viewership, we predict that the 2019/20 Premier League season will be the most watched ever in the UK.
Once the Premier League 2019/20 season is back underway and on course for record viewership figures, there are a number of interesting questions to delve into 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 coverage of live games?
- What is most important in driving viewership: access to Sky and/or BT, teams involved, or channel?
- Is the fanless environment, despite broadcasters attempting to create an atmosphere virtually, impacting 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, both at different kick-off times. The new schedule will see 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?