The Football League’s admission that the Premier League’s decision to play matches on Friday nights is “disappointing” is an understatement that belies what some analysts believe will be a “commercial blow” for lower-league teams who could see the USP they have carved around those fixtures eroded.
Football League CEO Shaun Harvey hinted at the commercial fallout from the announcement earlier this week (30 December), when he labelled it “frustrating” as Friday evenings are core parts of its own broadcast offering.
Premier League bosses have included the rights for up to 10 live games on Friday evenings in the broadcast tender for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. The packages are expected to herald a bumper payday for the country’s top clubs that will likely exceed the record £30.18bn fee generated from the current deal.
Despite disappointment in the move, Harvey acknowledged the rewards to be reaped from showing Premier League fixtures during the prime time slot amid tougher competition. “The pressures are being created mainly by the expansion of European club competitions because leagues are prohibited from broadcasting their matches on the same night,” he said.
Sponsorship observers share Harvey’s trepidation, warning that should the 10 games prove a success for broadcasters and advertisers then it could pave the way for more in the long-term. For the Football League to thrive in the face of the Premier League’s media land grab, it will need to pursue a more aggressive commercial strategy that looks to engage younger audiences on new channels, they added.
Jon Stainer, managing director of Repucom UK and Ireland, said: “The viewing figures for Premier League matches on Friday nights will be very strong, particularly with the after work crowd. The presence of those matches on Friday will erode that audience for the Football League but its only 10 games over a 40-week season.
“The out-of-home audience is an interesting angle when it comes to the commercial opportunities as there will be a high number of people that flock to pubs and bars after work to watch those games.”
Esteve Calzada, CEO of Prime Time Sport and former chief marketing and commercial officer at Barcelona FC, argued that “Friday night football has not proven successful in any top European league so far and I don't think it would be different in England”.
The warning draws attention to the Scottish Premier League’s switch to Friday evenings in 2011. Club bosses and fans had high hopes for the prime-time slot but the league’s failure to secure a headline sponsor in the year’s since suggests the limited impact it had on the value of the brand.
Calzada added: “In terms of the value of those [Premier League] games for broadcasters, my opinion is that it would be insignificant,’ he added. “There is a lack of tradition to watch top flight football on Fridays. There is little overseas commercial value as the games would be shown very late in Asia and during the working day in America. Additionally, there would be difficulty to feature top teams on Europe games week. I believe the additional potential commercial value would not off-set the above mentioned downsides and therefore I don't think it would be a good idea.”
The Premier League’s impact on Fridays could be further dampened should the Football League’s reported switch from the BBC to Channel 5 prove a success. A Match of the Day-style show is being prepped for next season that will feature highlights from the Championship, League One and League Two at the prime time slot of 9pm on Saturdays.
The three year-deal is worth reportedly worth £6m, marginally better than the BBC's but will offer a more promising platform for the Football League to grow its audience.
Stainer said: “The move will give them a little bit of ownership away from the Premier League action, switching away from that late night spot on BBC to a more favourable spot on Channel 5. The switch to Channel 5 along with Friday night Premier League matches will be something the Football League take into consideration when it comes to the next round of their sponsorship cycle."
The Premier League’s imminent arrival on Friday evenings is the latest setback to the Football League’s push to strike out from the commercial shadow of its larger rival. It hired its first marketing director earlier this year alongside an overhaul of its commercial offering after attempts to secure a long-term title sponsor and grow the brand overseas stuttered.
Andy Westlake, CEO of Fast Track and board member of the European Sponsorship Association, said: “I think that most sponsors are smart enough to see that the real value comes from an active engagement with Football League fans - they recognise that those fans care passionately about their team and so they work hard to add value and make connections with those fans beyond the broadcast exposure alone. The reliance on the broadcast inventory to deliver value is less of a focus than it once was and so while this will be frustrating for the Football League I can't see that it will have a massive impact on the value of the deals that they or their clubs are able to do.”
The gulf between the Football League and the Premier League is highlighted in the commercial rosters for both. Six brands including title sponsor Sky Bet and Papa John’s have access to rights for the Championship, League One and League Two tournaments in comparison to the four sponsors such as Nike and Carlsberg for just the Premier League.
The gap is even more pronounced when the value of broadcast fees is taken into account. The bottom three clubs stand to lose around £40m from broadcast revenues once relegated to the Championship, where the figure is said to be around £5m.